Richard Serbin’s 32-year fight to uncover the truth of clergy sexual-abuse
Published in 2019 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 16, 2019
Updated on May 1, 2020
Altoona used to celebrate train whistles like they were paydays. As the locomotive industry boomed, the central Pennsylvania community grew too, jumping from about 3,000 in 1854—when the first train chugged around Altoona’s famous horseshoe curve—to more than 80,000 in 1940.
But as deindustrialization crept in during the second half of the 20th century, the once-thriving downtown stumbled, and Altoona sank into the shadows of the Allegheny mountains.
Even in a small town nestled in the mountains, secrets don’t stay buried.
In 2016, a Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report exposed the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown to have systemically protected at least 50 religious leaders accused of sexual abuse of children. The report was a precursor to an explosive, statewide grand jury report which estimates more than 300 “predator priests” targeted more than 1,000 children over 70 years in six of the state’s eight dioceses.
“Those that had the power to do something about it—the bishops, the leaders of these dioceses—did nothing to protect these children,” says civil trial attorney Richard Serbin.
Altoona’s sleepy downtown, dotted with coffee shops, a railroad museum and historic churches, hid truth behind holy doors, and Serbin has spent the last 32 years fighting to uncover it.
Serbin, a Pittsburgh native, came to Altoona in 1977. Then 30, he had spent the last three years working as a district attorney 80 miles east in Mifflintown, a borough of less than 1,000, with one stoplight and five attorneys. Altoona, in comparison, felt like a metropolis: It had fast food chains and restaurants—plural, he notes, unlike Mifflintown’s single diner. Serbin’s built a solid book of personal injury work, until a 1987 referral turned him toward the case of his life.
Today, Serbin sits in a coffee shop that buzzes with the sound of espresso machines. He watches a girl in tap shoes click-clack her way to the pastry counter. He speaks softly, his grey, chin-length hair as still as his voice as he recounts his first meeting with client Michael Hutchison.
“He was very thin,” Serbin says of the then-19-year-old. “He was beaten down.”
They met at an Ohio psychiatric facility for criminals, where he was serving time on a robbery charge. Michael’s mother, Mary, was there. She held a handful of quarters in trembling hands. Serbin watched Michael feed the quarters into vending machine after vending machine. Four candy bars later, he began to speak.
Hutchison described the sexual abuse he faced from 11 to 17 at the hands of Rev. Francis Luddy, of St. Therese Roman Catholic Church. He was also the boy’s godfather.
Mary went to the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown to tell him about Luddy’s abuse. The bishop seemed sympathetic. But the next day, Mary got a call from the diocese attorney: there was nothing they could do for her. Out of options, she called Serbin. She cried as she told him about the abuse. The trauma left Hutchison with compromised mental health and severe PTSD. He’d also fallen into prostitution.
Serbin had never tried a clergy abuse case, and the clock on the statute of limitations was ticking. But he believed Hutchison and filed civil charges against the diocese.
He couldn’t begin to grasp that what he’d set into motion would lead to a sweeping investigation that would go all the way to the Vatican.
Instead, when he thinks about that moment, what sticks out is his naivete.
“I thought that the church would do the right, moral thing,” he says. “I was dead wrong.”
“Church allowed abuse by priest for years.”
The Jan. 6, 2002, Boston Globe headline shook the country. In the months that followed, the newspaper’s investigative Spotlight team published more than 600 stories about decades of Catholic clergy sex abuse. It drew widespread attention to the issue and opened the door for survivors to come forward.
Fifteen years before, though, reporting on Luddy’s abuse was almost nonexistent. Altoona media wanted to cover the Hutchison case, but, Serbin says, due the deference given to priests, the court placed a gag order and sealed the record. Little came to light until the 1994 trial, seven years after Serbin’s filing.
Even before the 11-week trial, Serbin received death threats and was attacked by the diocese’s newspaper. The Hutchisons were criticized as “money grubbers.” At one point, the defense attorney asked Hutchison if the whole case was “just about money.”
“No sir, I don’t want any money. I just want the jury to believe me,” Serbin remembers Hutchison saying.
They did, and awarded $1.5 million. The church filed an appeal, and Serbin fought to uphold the verdict for 14 years.
“They tried to wear me down,” he says. “The nastier they became, the angrier and more determined I was.”
The Hutchison family had no money, so Serbin continued the case out of his pocket until 2008, when the church exhausted all its options, lost and paid out nearly $3 million, including interest and delay damages. Hutchison died in 2012, at 44. Serbin was mentioned in his obituary.
Publicity from Hutchison and the Spotlight reports helped survivors of clergy sexual abuse feel like they weren’t alone, Serbin says. He knows because his phone wouldn’t stop ringing in the early 2000s.
His secretary of 42 years, Mary Ann Ruscio, an Altoona native and Catholic, would field the calls. Like most Catholics in the area, Ruscio has personal connections to the cases.
“The priest who performed my marriage ceremony, James Skupien, turned out to be a prolific child abuser,” she says. “Another, Dennis Coleman, baptized my son.”
The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown consists of 86 parishes in eight counties under bishop Mark Bartchak; The previous bishop, Joseph Adamec, assumed the role in 1987, the same year Serbin filed Hutchison.
Serbin was a key source for the 2016 Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown report. It identified Adamec and James Hogan, bishop from 1966 to 1986, as having played a role in covering for at least 50 priests who abused hundreds . According to that report, the two “took actions that further endangered children as they placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the well-being of innocent children.”
Whenever rumors started circulating about an abusive clergy member, Serbin says that priest would be moved from a large parish to a small parish to an even smaller parish. “Because those are so small, predators could become the parish priest as opposed to an assistant priest,” Serbin says. “So they run the show with no supervision.”
On the diocese’s website today, a list identifies 30 priests who were the subject of credible abuse allegations. Twenty-two thumbnail photos of smiling priests is paired with their status: 16 deceased, two removed from public ministry, three laicized (stripped of rights and obligations of priesthood), one incarcerated. Another eight are currently on leave.
Since Hutchison, Serbin has represented more than 300 survivors. Part of the problem, he notes, is the church feeds the idea that the alleged victims are just in it for a pay day.
Add a restrictive statute of limitations, and the cases are essentially over before they began.
One client is John Nesbella. In the late 1970s, he attended Bishop Carroll High School, where Rev. Martin Brady gravitated toward him. Serbin filed Nesbella’s case in 2005, but it was dismissed due to the statute of limitations.
In the years after the abuse, Nesbella attended seminary and became a priest in 2002. “I’ve always believed in God,” he says. But since Nesbella brought charges against the diocese, he is no longer permitted in a Roman Catholic church. Now an engineer, he attends the Polish National Catholic Church.
“They don’t care,” Nesbella says of the diocese. “I’ve had three careers destroyed, and they don’t think to reach out and make reparations. We have no recourse, but to turn to attorneys like Richard Serbin.”
It’s been 32 years since Serbin watched Hutchison buy candy bar after candy bar before he told his story. Had Serbin not taken that case, the 109 names of alleged predator priests that were identified in the reports could have stayed buried.
“I wasn’t looking to create a new specialty,” says Serbin, who, in addition to his solo practice, leads the sexual abuse division at Janet, Janet & Suggs as of counsel. He had planned on retiring in 2017. But then the bombshell Altoona-Johnstown report dropped. “[The grand jury reports are] being recognized throughout the country as a roadmap for [future] investigations,” he says. As more investigations ramp up across the nation, attorneys look to Serbin.
“He’s developed things that lawyers who handle sex abuse cases look to,” says Michael Parrish Jr. of Spence, Custer, Saylor, Wolfe & Rose. Parrish has worked on sex abuse cases and first co-counseled with Serbin five years ago. “If Rich Serbin is involved on a case with you, simply having him in the room makes a difference in how the case is going to be handled—just because of his experience and knowledge.”
Survivors keep coming, too—even ones who can’t or don’t want to proceed with a case. “Sometimes they just want to talk,” Serbin says. “I have people in their 70s calling me, and they’ve never told a soul. They’ve lived with these demons all this time, and they feel they can trust me because I’ve fought for so many years.”
Even with the evidence mounting against the systematic abuse within Catholic dioceses—all the way to the Vatican—Serbin’s isn’t optimistic. “Never did I see any concern for the child,” he says. “It was always about the reputation of the church or the priest.”
Statutes of limitations continue to restrict survivors from legal recourse, but recent changes have provided hope. “[In February,] New York created a window of opportunity for an adult child sex abuse survivor of any age to file a claim during the one-year period the window is in effect,” Serbin says. “New Jersey is considering a similar bill. That’s what we’re trying to get in Pennsylvania. … As a result, I see there are going to be legislative changes throughout the country. I think it’s going to happen.”
Compensation is another matter. “Every diocese has already rolled out compensation funds except for one— Altoona-Johnstown,” Serbin says. And the Vatican assumes no responsibility, or at least none financially, he adds.
Under intense pressure from victims, in February 2019, Pope Francis convened a landmark Vatican meeting on clergy sexual abuse. Serbin says it’s too little, too late.
“It was a big hullaballoo and nothing. The church repeated the comments it has made since the Pennsylvania grand jury report,” he says. “Nothing specific was said or policy change announced as to how the Vatican intends to financially help the thousands of adult survivors.”
He also notes a lack of transparency. “They failed to announce that any cardinal, bishop, vicar general or church official complicit in the cover-up of child sexual abuse will be relieved of their duties and punished,” he says. “The church should also commit to full disclosure of all information dealing with this crisis, including opening up its ‘secret archives.’”
Serbin remembers how, before all this began, he once walked around Vatican City in wide-eyed wonder. He was struck by the hundreds of paintings in opulent gold frames within Vatican City.
“The Vatican has the financial resources to do the right thing,” he says.
Church Sexual Abuse Scandal Timeline
Richard Serbin files Hutchison v. Luddy, one of the first in the nation against a priest, bishop and diocese.
Hutchison goes to trial. After 11 weeks, the jury awards Hutchison $1.5 million; the diocese appeals.
The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team publishes more than 600 stories about decades of Catholic clergy sexual abuse of children.
A Philadelphia-specific grand jury investigation states a “concerted campaign” by Philadelphia Archdiocese leaders to cover up abuse. It cites 63 priests accused of abuse, and hundreds of child victims.
14 years after the 1994 Hutchison trial, the diocese finally pays out $3 million.
A second Philadelphia Archdiocese report investigates allegations that the church failed to stop the sexual abuse or change how accusations are handled; this report identifies an additional 37 priests who were “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.
The Altoona-Johnstown report drops. The state attorney general’s office was then flooded with calls of past abuse, which spurred new investigations into six dioceses: Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
The State Supreme Court orders the release of the report on the six dioceses; it goes public August 14 and identifies more than 300 “predator priests.”
Pope Francis holds an unprecedented summit on clergy sex abuse in Rome on February 21. In March, George Pell—the most senior-level Vatican official charged with sexual abuse—is convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.