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Court To Decide On Damages From Diocese

Sep 10, 2002 | Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The plaintiff's attorney says the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese showed "abhorrent conduct" and should have to pay up more for its failure to rein in a pedophile priest.

A diocese lawyer says church officials showed "no evil motive or reckless indifference" and owe the plaintiff nothing beyond the $1.2 million it paid him last year.

The stakes in the argument are $1 million in punitive damages, the winner to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

Yesterday, attorneys made their cases to the seven justices, the latest and possibly the last major chapter in a legal fight that began with the plaintiff's 1987 lawsuit charging that former Altoona priest Francis Luddy molested him in 1982 and 1984.

After an 11-week civil trial in 1994, a Blair County civil jury awarded the plaintiff 3/4 now 35 and living with his mother in Akron, Ohio 3/4 compensatory damages to pay for years of therapy that mental health experts say he will need as a result of the abuse and punitive damages to penalize the diocese for failing to curb Luddy, an admitted pedophile.

Two years ago, the Superior Court threw out the punitive damages, leading to yesterday's arguments on appeal before the Supreme Court.

"The [Blair County] jury found outrageous conduct," Richard Serbin, the Altoona lawyer representing the plaintiff, said after the hearing. "There was reckless indifference."

But Louis Long, the Pittsburgh attorney representing the diocese, said Serbin didn't make the case during the 1994 trial to back up the claim. Long said Serbin never showed "evil motive or reckless indifference" in the failure to rein in Luddy, who admitted under oath to sex with the plaintiff's older brother but denied molesting the plaintiff.

Long cited the two occasions on which Luddy's trysts with the plaintiff are supposed to have occurred. Both, the plaintiff said, came when he ran away from his Akron home and sought out Luddy, meeting him at an Altoona motel.

There was no evidence that the diocese even knew that the plaintiff was back in Altoona and around Luddy, Long said.

Serbin told the justices, though, that the Blair County jury agreed with him that diocese officials knew that Luddy was a pedophile "and acted intentionally in concealing this."

The Post-Gazette is not naming the plaintiff in print under the newspaper's policy barring identification of possible victims of sexual abuse.

One thing the justices did not hear yesterday was the diocese's suggestion that the plaintiff's mother urged his two youngest brothers to claim that Luddy molested them, too.

Both younger brothers said the fabrications were an attempt to bolster the plaintiff's case, the plaintiff's older brother said in a sworn statement the diocese filed with the Supreme Court two weeks ago.

Serbin responded last week with a charge that the diocese knew the claims were false, and he asked that the justices force the diocese be forced to pick up the full legal tab in the case as penalty for its "outrageous professional conduct."

In a response filed late yesterday, the diocese said it simply it doesn't know the claims were false and was searching for the truth.

"To have ignored [the] claims would have been malpractice on the part of counsel," Long wrote in his response.

Friday, the Supreme Court subsequently refused the diocese's request to send the allegations back to the Blair County for further investigation. Among other things that investigation could have produced was conflict among witnesses.

The court has not indicated when it will rule on either the request for punitive damages or on Serbin's demand for sanctions.

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