THE GOOD FIGHT
The Crusader Who Exposed Pennsylvania’s Sadistic Priests
Without Richard Serbin’s diligence and commitment, many of the atrocities committed by hundreds of Pennsylvania’s Catholic priests would never have come to light.
ROME — Richard Serbin remembers the day in 1987 when he met 19-year-old Michael Hutchinson. The skinny young man was in a mental health institution for criminals serving time for robbery and male prostitution. “I can remember that meeting very well,” said Serbin, who was 40 at the time and just getting his bearings in what he thought would be a career dedicated to civil cases against big corporations. “He was very hyper and he got all these candy bars from the vending machine. Then he told me what happened.”
Michael, it turns out, was very troubled. He had been sexually abused from just before his 11th birthday until he was 17 by Father Francis Luddy, a Catholic priest in the Pennsylvania diocese of Altoona-Johnstown who has since died.
Luddy, who was in his 40s at the time, was so close to the Hutchinson family he was also Michael’s godfather. He is one of 301 predator priests exposed in a sickening document released by a Pennsylvania grand jury on Tuesday. That document outlines alleged sexual crimes against more than 1,000 children over seven decades of stunning silence and cover ups across six dioceses in Pennsylvania.
Without Serbin’s diligence and commitment, many of these atrocities never would have come to light. Serbin, who has been defending victims of clerical sex abuse since he met Michael more than 30 years ago, provided the names of 109 predator priests to the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation, and to a prior Pennsylvania grand jury investigation in 2016.
Serbin found his way to Michael’s cell after the boy’s mother, Mary Hutchinson, grew frustrated with a lack of response from the local diocese. She went to visit Serbin in his small office. “She was obviously a brave woman, willing to publicly take on the church on behalf of her son,” Serbin recalls. “Keep in mind that in 1987 no one believed a priest would sexually molest a child.” She didn’t want compensation from the church, Serbin insists. She just wanted her son to get the care he needed.
“He was in a mental institute for criminals. It was close to his 20th birthday,” Serbin told The Daily Beast by phone from Pennsylvania. “Michael was this very slender boy. He had been in prison, he was sodomized in prison, he had borderline intelligence.”
When Serbin and Michael’s mother visited Michael, and Serbin listened to the disturbing details of the young man’s story, he came to the conclusion that Michael probably didn’t have the mental faculties “to make this stuff up.” He believed Michael and took the case, and immediately filed a lawsuit with a provision to stop the statute of limitations. But in 1987 he had no idea what he was up against or how widespread clerical sexual abuse was in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. But as Michael told him more about the crimes committed against him, Serbin grew enraged.
Serbin says Michael first fell prey to Luddy when he served as an altar boy at the St. Therese Catholic Church in Altoona in 1977. The family first discovered that Michael’s older brother Mark had been in a sexual relationship with Luddy, which was of course actually abuse, but Mark had been reluctant to refer to it that way. Instead, Luddy had convinced him that he was in love with him and offered him gifts and trips to Europe. Mark never testified against his predator priest, Serbin suggests, because he had been brainwashed.
“The father was a macho type of guy and he was brutal to Mark when he found out Mark had engaged in a sexual relationship with Luddy. He called him a lollipop sucker and things like that,” Serbin recalls. “The father blamed the mom who wanted them to go to Catholic school. The father was pretty tough on Mark, and Michael didn’t want to be subjected to the same treatment.”
The young boy was intent on running away from home and Luddy offered him money to help him out. The false sense of security he got from the priest meant he ran straight into the arms of a monster. Luddy later admitted that he had been abusing children ever since he had been ordained, some 20 years before he was caught.
Serbin filed the lawsuit in Altoona in 1987, but the case didn’t go to trial until 1994. During that time, lawyers for the church worked to build a case against the victim. A letter to the superior bishop, Donald W. Trautman, lays out what Serbin was up against. The letter, revealed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, details the Hutchinson vs. Luddy case, and goes on to say that the diocese had given documents from the so-called secret archives. “I refused to comply in the latter until it became evident that the Diocese could suffer sanctions and would lose its insurance coverage for non-compliance,” the bishop wrote. The letter was copied to the Vatican’s emissary in Washington and the Pennsylvania bishops.
During the discovery phase of the suit, lawyers for the Altoona diocese deposed Michael while he was in the mental hospital. “They attacked him brutally,” Serbin says, recalling the young man’s vulnerability. “They used hardball tactics. They asked what he did with the semen once it was in his mouth.”
At the end of the deposition, Serbin says even the guard in the room believed Michael’s disturbing stories. But the local diocese engaged in a tactic that has been used in countless other cases. They assassinated their victim’s character. In some other cases, the local diocese in Pennsylvania would choose to settle and pay punitive damages to the victims, but in Michael’s they seem to have thought they had an easy target.
“They thought that because Michael was such an unattractive client he could never win this case, so they never offered anything,” Serbin says. “I think they wanted to prove a point and they were able to introduce the fact that Michael had committed robbery, prostituted himself to homosexuals… And the fact of the matter was that Michael was not very bright, so they had all these things to use. He didn’t do well in school. I think they felt they are going to win because this is such a weak and unattractive client.”
In court testimony, Luddy would admit to what he called a relationship with Michael’s older brother Mark, but insisted he had not abused Michael because Michael wasn’t attractive or smart enough. “He said he found Michael intellectually inferior and physically unattractive, so he would never put his body or mouth on Michael,” Serbin says. “Michael heard Luddy say horrible things about him [in court]. He was screwed up by the time of trial. Poor Michael had to hear it all. He told the jury he didn’t want any money, he just wanted someone to believe him.”
Serbin eventually won the case for his client after 20 years of trials and appeals in an epic battle against what he would learn was one of the most powerful and cunning institutions in the world: the Catholic Church. In all, Luddy’s diocese spent more than $2 million to defend and protect the predator priest, who ruined the lives of so many victims. But Michael would never enjoy justice. He died at the age of 40, shortly after the case was won, of a likely overdose.
Serbin says emotional stress and mental illness are not uncommon among those he has met or represented. He says victims of clerical sex abuse are often difficult to defend precisely because they are suffering from the emotional impact after years of suffering. “Many have attempted suicide. Many are addicted to drugs, or are alcoholics,” he says. “Very few come out of it clean. They all paid a very big price for being molested by people they trusted. I argued in trial that Michael’s problems stemmed from being sexually molested from the age 11 on by the person he trusted and he thought loved him.”
Serbin says most of the 300 people he has represented have baggage. “That’s why I say most people don’t come forward,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve had people in their 70s and married—or maybe divorced, because intimate relationships are hard to keep—call me. They didn’t want to file a claim and didn’t want money, but they just wanted to tell someone what happened. They wanted someone to believe them.”
Serbin filed his first lawsuit on this in 1987, many years before the Boston Globe ran with the story of what would spark the groundbreaking Spotlight investigations. “At that time, I was only aware of a couple of cases in the entire country,” Serbin told us, “so I didn’t really have much to lean on. I’m a civil trial attorney. I represent injured people. Naively I thought this was a case we would settle. I thought the church would do the right thing.”
“Of course I was shocked,” Serbin says, looking back on the revelations in that case. “Michael was sodomized repeatedly from the age of 11, sometimes daily, and so it just bothered me that anyone could be repeatedly victimized. I was so outraged by it, it became and still is something I feel so strongly about. I have represented approximately 300 victims of clergy child sex abuse and talked to over 500. I’ve had clients commit suicide. I’ve lost clients to the pain and depression and darkness as a result of being sexually violated by someone they were taught to respect.”
The more Serbin dug into this sordid history of the church and its cover-up of abuse allegations, the harder the church fought back, always trying to take advantage of the victims’ weaknesses. The plaintiffs often appear aloof, or unstable, or are so emotionally damaged from the abuse and continuing trust issues they have a hard time functioning in society.
Because so many of the crimes were committed outside of the statute of limitations, victims often find punitive damage their only path to justice, which gives the church an opportunity to claim that the victims only want money. It’s a vicious cycle, made worse by the victim shaming and the hermetic secrecy of the church.
Serbin’s legal discovery attempts led him to the secret archives housing most dioceses' complaints about predator priests, and which the Pennsylvania grand jury insists need to be opened in their entirety. “They limited what I could get through discovery and even though the trial judge ruled I could have access to the secret archives, I didn’t get all the records,” he says, describing his 20-year battle for justice for Michael. “They fudged on that and lied and perjured themselves.”
Serbin received death threats and personal attacks throughout his career as he fought the grinding intransigence of the Catholic hierarchy and its lawyers. “They tried to wear me down personally and financially. I had a small law firm and they were a very substantial multi-state law firm,” he said. “In 1987 no one was doing this publicly and I was attacked in the Catholic Register paper. They attacked me, my clients, even Michael’s mother.”
Serbin, who is Jewish, relied on the support of his mostly Catholic staff. “My associate with me at the time was Catholic, my secretary and paralegal were Catholic and that helped me a great deal because it gave me some knowledge, because I just couldn’t understand the religious aspect and why you would be so enamored with someone just because they are a priest,” he says. “I got in trouble in Hebrew school for talking back to the the rabbi, and I couldn’t fathom the fascination with the priest.”
Serbin fought hard but he says he lost almost 100 civil cases due to the statute of limitations or other legal loopholes. “What I’ve learned and still believe is that the church has a great deal of power in the court system. The district attorneys and police all give deference to the power of the Catholic Church,” he says. “I had to file the complaints under seal. I was placed under a gag order. I started the discovery process and they fought tooth and nail for everything.”
It took Serbin a long time to realize the rot he was up against. “This is how naive I was, I kept thinking the church was going to do the right thing,” he says. “I had in the back of my mind, they are going to do the right thing by this kid who had been molested. So I thought this is going to settle.”
Serbin is disappointed that the church’s tactics and deceit continue despite being exposed in sensational cases like those in Boston, in Chile, and now in Pennsylvania. What’s worse is that it’s still going on, he says. “I am so grateful that this attorney general’s office did what they did on Tuesday with this grand jury report. The public needs to know about the depravity that occurred here, and the lack of any concern for the plight of these innocent children and the total indifference to what was going on.”
Serbin is also disappointed with the Vatican’s response, which came two full days after the damning report from Pennsylvania was released. “Three popes have been involved in overseeing this [scandal] since I started. I really think they are as much responsible as each of the bishops and church leaders in the States,” he says. “They knew there were serious problems. They knew children were being harmed for life. They knew families were being torn apart. Some of these child predators were so perverted, and I don’t know how any decent human being, not only a member of a religious organization, could look at this other than with disgust. And this still shocks me to this day. This should never happen again. And these bishops and church leaders, these heads should roll.”,