Recusal Rebuffed in Church Sex Abuse Comment

By Amaris Elliott-Engel,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
February 20, 2012

The Philadelphia judge presiding over a criminal case in which a Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia church official is charged with endangering youth allegedly abused by priests declined to recuse herself after she remarked during an earlier proceeding, according to defense lawyers, that someone would have to be living on another planet to not think there is widespread child sex abuse in the church.

Judge Teresa Sarmina of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court said she phrased her comment about sex abuse in the past tense. But defense counsel said they were not misquoting the judge.

During a hearing Wednesday, Judge Sarmina said her comment was made during a working session over questions to be posed to potential jurors. She said the session involved candor, a give-and-take between the bench and opposing counsel, and even questions posed from the perspective of a devil's advocate.

The point of the session was to work toward the unified goal of an agreed-upon set of questions to pose to jurors during a jury selection process expected to take as long as a month, Judge Sarmina said.

She also said that her job was not to aid attorneys in deciding how they would use their peremptory challenges of jurors but to identify the biases of prospective jurors.

Judge Sarmina said she phrased her comment in the past tense, while it was reported in the media and in the defense's motion seeking her recusal that she was phrasing the comment in the present tense and as if though the problem is ongoing now.

The judge said it is not known if child sex abuse is a present problem in the archdiocese. There are 800 priests "laboring under a cloud of suspicion not of their own making," she added.

In the end, the judge had struck the question anyway, which would have asked jurors if they believe child sex abuse is a widespread problem in the Catholic Church.

Defense attorney Jeffrey M. Lindy of Lindy & Tauber said he strenuously objected to the judge's decision not to recuse herself. Mr. Lindy said the standard for recusal in Pennsylvania is whether a statement has the appearance of impropriety.

His client, Monsignor William Lynn, is charged with endangering the welfare of two young men whom his co-defendants allegedly abused as well as being in a conspiracy with them. Monsignor Lynn was the archdiocese's secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. He was responsible for the assignment of priests and responding to reports of sexual abuse or other improprieties allegedly committed by priests.

Mr. Lindy and his co-counsel, Thomas A. Bergstrom of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, moved to sever the case from the case of a co-defendant, former priest Edward Avery, because Judge Sarmina ruled the situations in which men reported that Mr. Avery sexually abused them as very young teenagers but for which he is not facing criminal charges in the upcoming trial should be admitted into the case. The judge said such evidence would be more probative than prejudicial.

"It's going to be very difficult for a jury to compartmentalize this," Mr. Bergstrom said.

Judge Sarmina denied the motion to sever.

Jury selection is slated to start in the case this week. The trial is expected to last at least four months.

A petition by Mr. Bergstrom and Monsignor Lynn also is pending with the state Supreme Court. In that petition, they asked the Supreme Court to exercise extraordinary or King's Bench jurisdiction over the question that Monsignor Lynn was charged with endangering the welfare of a child.



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