A Legal Pioneer for Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors for Over 30 Years

In 1987, Richard M. Serbin was one of the first attorneys in the United States to file a lawsuit and proceed to trial against a Catholic Diocese, a bishop, and a priest for the sexual abuse of a child. Since that groundbreaking case he has represented hundreds of child sexual abuse survivors. He is recognized as a national figure in winning compensation for child abuse victims and exposing the systematic cover up of crimes against children within the Catholic Church and other religious institutions.

Over the last 35 years Serbin has represented hundreds of men and women throughout the country who were sexually assaulted as children by priests, teachers, and church employees. [1] He is the only attorney to date to win a jury verdict in Pennsylvania against a diocese, bishop, and child predator priest. In 2018 Serbin joined the national law firm of Janet, Janet & Suggs, as a leader in the firm’s Sexual Abuse Division. [2]

The Child Abuse Case That Changed Everything

 

In 1987, Serbin offered representation to a nineteen-year-old survivor, Michael Hutchison, who had suffered years of horrific sexual abuse. The young man disclosed detailed accounts of repeated abuse by Father Francis Luddy of the Pennsylvania Diocese of Altoona- Johnstown, beginning when he was only 11 years old. The assaults continued frequently for 7 years. Serbin knew he had to do everything in his power to find justice for Michael by exposing his abuser, and those within the church who enabled the abuse to occur and continue. He filed a lawsuit against Luddy, the bishop and the diocese, to seek justice for the abuse Michael endured and the lasting impact on his life. [3]

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After numerous legal battles the trial finally began in January of 1994. The 11-week trial resulted in a verdict in favor of Michael. The jury’s verdict included $519,000.00 in compensatory damages and $1,050,000.00 in punitive damages. Since the defendants never offered anything to settle the case, the court added pre-judgment interest in the amount of $311,564.11. The Defendants appealed. It took over twenty years for Michael to receive justice. After multiple appeals to the Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme Courts the jury’s verdict in favor of Michael Hutchison was upheld. [4] While the verdict never diminished the indignities and loss of his childhood, it did help Michael find closure, after decades of pain, suffering and denials by those responsible.

 

Fifteen years after Serbin filed the Hutchison v Luddy lawsuit, the Boston Globe published results of an investigation that led to the criminal prosecution of five Roman Catholic priests within the Archdiocese of Boston for child molestation and thrust the issue of widespread abuse and cover-ups by Church officials into the national spotlight. [5]

 

The Secret Archives

 

While investigating Hutchison’s case, Serbin made a surprising discovery. Roman Canon Law required bishops to keep files detailing complaints of sexual misconduct by priests locked in “secret archives”. These archives are accessible only to the bishop. Through the discovery process Serbin requested the files. After a lengthy court battle, he obtained a court order requiring the bishop to produce the files. These documents referenced Luddy’s treatment records while a patient at the Servants of the Paraclete Treatment Center; a facility located in New Mexico and frequently used by Catholic dioceses to refer sexually deviant priests. While under treatment, Luddy admitted to psychiatrists he had sexually abused numerous children beginning his first year of ordination, a period of 19 years.

 

The secret archive records also revealed complaints against numerous other priests within the diocese and the protection of these child predators by the bishop. The Secret Archive records confirmed that the bishop had been untruthful about his knowledge of the sexual abuse of children by priests within the diocese during his sworn pre-trial deposition testimony. Instead of removing priests who violated children, he transferred them to new parishes.

 

Serbin’s discovery of the existence of these secret Church archives was pivotal to identifying pedophile priests in all eight Pennsylvania dioceses. Serbin’s investigation identified 109 priests who had sexually assaulted children. He was called to provide testimony before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury. In 2018 the Grand Jury issued a report revealing the widespread child abuse within each of the six dioceses, and the complicity of bishops of each diocese in covering-up the sexual abuse of children. Over three hundred priests were identified as having engaged in sexual assaults upon children. By late 2018, attorneys general in at least 18 states had launched their own investigations into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and the protection given to child predators. [6]

 

Legal Precedent—Impacting Courts Nationwide

 

The Hutchison v Luddy case has been cited by state and federal courts throughout the United States, and the subject of countless law review and scholarly articles for the groundbreaking court holdings in the area of clergy abuse. The Pennsylvania Supreme and Superior Courts’ holdings include the recognition of a cause of action for negligent retention and supervision; the right to recover punitive damages against a religious institution on a negligence claim, and the right to recover interest from the date of the verdict until the date of payment.

 

The Hutchison v Luddy case was the catalyst for the attorney general to convene an investigative grand jury. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury referenced the Hutchison case extensively in its 2016 report covering the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. [7]  It also laid the groundwork for the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

 
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Challenging Statutes of Limitations for Survivors

 

Although Michael was molested from ages eleven to seventeen, because of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations he was permitted only to pursue the last two sexual assaults, when he was seventeen years old.

 

It is well documented that for numerous reasons most child sexual abuse victims wait until their mid-fifties to reveal their traumas. Over his career Serbin has frequently addressed the need for states to change their laws to provide survivors of sexual abuse more time to seek justice. In its 887-page 2018 report on Catholic clergy sex abuse, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury included a recommendation that now-adult survivors of priest child sexual abuse be given a retroactive two year “window of opportunity” to sue their abusers in civil court regardless of their current age. It also recommended that the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children be eliminated. [8]  Although slow to act, Pennsylvania is currently considering legislation to change its law, thereby opening a window for all child sexual abuse victims to pursue civil claims.

 
 

A Sympathetic Ear

 

For Serbin representing abuse survivors has become a calling. The survivors he represents often have experienced severe emotional problems. Many have suffered from addiction to drugs or alcohol, unemployment, loss of trust, issues with intimacy and feelings of self-loathing. Suicide ideation and attempted suicide are common. Nearly all have suffered lifelong difficulties from the betrayal by someone they were taught to respect and trust. [9]

 

“Abuse survivors contact me just to talk about what happened. Some don’t want to file a claim, they just want to talk to someone they feel they can trust. I understand that. It’s often not about money, it’s about healing, recovery and preventing other children from suffering the horrors of abuse. For me it is a privilege to use my profession to assist survivors in their struggle for justice. I’m happy to listen for as long as they want to talk.”

Educating Others

 

Serbin is the author of an American Association for Justice article, When Clergy Fail Their Flocks, [10] concerning the intricacies and obstacles lawyers face in representing people harmed by those in positions of trust. He has also shared his knowledge by speaking at various state and national trial lawyers’ organizations on the subject of representing child sexual abuse survivors.

 

Certifications, Bar and Court Admissions, Memberships, and Awards

The Best Lawyers in America®, 2021-2023

Board-certified in Civil Trial Advocacy by the National Board of Trial Advocacy, 1989-Present

Martindale-Hubbell® AV® Preeminent™

Pennsylvania Super Lawyers® 2006, 2011-2017, 2019-2022

Delaware Super Lawyers® 2019

Member, the Million Dollar Advocates Forum

Listed in Who’s Who in American Law

 

Pennsylvania Bar Association, 1974

North Carolina Bar Association, 1996

United States Middle District Court, 1974

United States Western District Court, 1980

United States Third Circuit Court of Appeal, 1981

United States Supreme Court, 1985

 

American Association for Justice

Pennsylvania Association for Justice

 

Serbin was the featured attorney on the cover story of the 2019 Pennsylvania and Delaware Super Lawyers magazine entitled “300 and Counting” – “For 32 years, Richard Serbin has fought to uncover the truth of clergy sexual abuse – 300 clients later, his phone is still ringing.

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Testimonials

“Over the past 50 years I have attempted to bury an unthinkable event that transformed my life.


Then I met Richard Serbin.


I knew instinctively the moment I spoke to Richard that I could share my story with him, which I had only ever shared with my husband.


Richard Serbin is a survivor’s advocate, a highly knowledgeable attorney, and, more importantly, Richard is a humanitarian. Richard is a compassionate man.


What needs to be understood is the embarrassment I had to share would cause extreme emotions on a grand scale. Yet, Richard’s demeanor and his genuine concern made sharing feel natural. Richard reminded me from our first conversation that I must remember that “THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT, BONNIE.”


With those words I knew that Richard Serbin has the experience to work with survivors. Because that one aspect of self-blame has affected all of the survivors. I needed to hear those words.”— BONNIE

“I doubt I would have had the success (and no amount of money will ever make up for what I lost) that I had without the guidance and protection of Richard Serbin. He advised me and did the “heavy lifting” regarding my case. He argued for me and sat with me during the interview that was to establish the worthiness of my compensation.
It was hard for me to deal with all the emotions that came up and I want to say that I am so glad I had Richard do the brunt of the communication and interfacing with the Diocese. I’m glad I had someone who could guide me. All I had to do was tell the truth in my testimony, written and verbal. He did the rest.


The RC Church has many, many good lawyers and lots of financial backing...I wanted someone who could “speak their language” and who would speak for me.


My case had a favorable outcome and I am very happy that I had Richard on my side to help make that happen.


The pain and anguish suffered by every victim that stays silent and by every victim that tries to speak up is without comparison. There is so much unfairness and injustice in the world for a victim/survivor. Loss in self esteem, self respect, courage, life goals, wages, relationships, mental health. There is so much hurt involved at so many levels that it is still – even after 25 years of recovery – overwhelming at times.”— MARK

“I came in contact with Mr. Serbin this past year. As a victim of child sexual abuse, I was looking for closure. Mr. Serbin was highly recommended. I am a suspicious, highly anxious and at times difficult person to work with as a result of my PTSD from the abuse. I never thought I would find somebody I could work with or understand the importance of my case. Before contacting Mr. Serbin, I “checked him out” and was not only impressed with his credentials, but more importantly to me, his humanity. From my research he really seemed to care about his clients.


I found Mr. Serbin to be very professional, intelligent, patient, kind, and supportive. He was more than understanding of my situation and understood the emotions and devastation I felt at times. He was always honest with me, explained everything in detail and told me to call or email at any time and he would soon get back to me, and he did. He gave me hope for closure when I had none in the past.


Mr. Serbin prepared me and calmed my fears when it came time to speak of my trauma. He was prepared in every aspect of my case, able to keep my anxieties in control and everything resolved in a very good outcome. He cares about his clients, does a tremendous amount of research to reach a beneficial solution and is always very gracious. Mr. Serbin cares about his clients and wants them to have justice through the legal system and have the perpetrator pay if at all possible.


I would recommend Mr. Serbin to anyone who wants a lawyer who will work with them not just because of a settlement, but because he understands and wants justice. He and his assistant Maryanne, who has been with him for many years, are a wonderful team. They both are the best at their job, caring, available, and get results. I am very thankful and will always appreciate the work and help they gave me.”— JO-ANN

“I would like to thank you and your firm for providing exceptional and informative services to me during the past year pertaining to my claim of abuse by a priest who has not faced repercussions for his immoral acts.
 

One of the key factors in choosing you specifically was your many years of experience helping victims abused by “trusted” priests through the lengthy court processes, while being compassionate and positive. You provided truth that the law was not on the side of the victims, but gave hope that the laws on limitations could and should be changed. You have tirelessly advocated for these changes and continue to give hope. You have gone out of your way to help me and others and I feel you have given all of us a strong voice against these priests and the Catholic Church. I feel you are truly on the side of the victims by your honesty and determination.
Again, thank you for helping me through this ordeal and keeping me informed on what has been happening with the laws and processes for the abused.”
— VINCENT

 
 
SOURCES

  1. The Crusader Who Exposed Pennsylvania’s Sadistic Catholic Priests,” Thedailybeast.com, August 8, 2018

  2. Janet, Jenner & Suggs adds Preeminent Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Attorney Richard M. Serbin to Its Sexual Abuse Division,” Globe Newswire, September 26, 2018

  3. Michael S. Hutchison, Jr., an Incompetent, by Mary J. Hutchison, Parent and Natural Guardian, and Mary J. Hutchison and Michael Hutchison, Individually v Father Francis Luddy, St. Therese’s Catholic Church, St. Therese’s Elementary School, Bishop James Hogan and Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, No. 1175 C.P., 1987 (Blair County, PA)

  4. Hutchison v Luddy, 453 Pa. Super 420, 683 A.2d 1254 (1996); 742 A.2d 1052 (Pa. 1999); 763 A.2d 826 (Pa. Super 2000); 870 A.2d 766 (Pa. 2005); 896 A.2d 1260 (Pa. Super 2006); 946 A.2d 744 (Pa. Super 2008)

  5. Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” Boston Globe, January 6, 2002

  6. Wave of State Attorneys General Take on Catholic Church Sex Abuse,” Axios, October 27, 2018

  7. “A Report of the Thirty-Seventy Statewide Investigating Grand Jury”, March 1, 2016

  8. Report I of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, Redacted by Order of PA Supreme Count July 27, 2018

  9. Trauma: Childhood Sexual Abuse”, Psychology Today, March 12, 2013

  10. When clergy fail their flocks: cases of child sexual abuse by clergy are in the headlines as victims come forward seeking justice. Attorneys can help remedy this ultimate betrayal of trust.” American Association for Justice Trial Magazine, 2002