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.
“The false sense of security he got from the priest meant he ran straight into the arms of a monster.”
“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.