Lawyers for the Philadelphia monsignor accused of enabling priests to molest children have asked the trial judge to step down, saying she compromised her impartiality when she said anyone who doubted there is "widespread" child abuse within the Catholic Church "is living on another planet."
The attorneys said the remark by Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina during a hearing in open court last week suggests she "harbors a firm predisposed opinion against the Catholic Church and its representatives," including their client, Msgr. William J. Lynn.
"Perhaps the court actually bears no biases. But that does not matter," Lynn's lawyers, Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy wrote in a motion filed Wednesday. "What does matter is that the public's confidence in the Court's impartiality is demonstrably undermined."
Sarmina's chambers said she would have no comment, citing rules of conduct that preclude judges from discussing pending cases.
The judge's remark came during a Jan. 31 hearing in which she, prosecutors and defense lawyers reviewed questions to be posed to prospective jurors in the forthcoming trial for Lynn and two others, the Rev. James J. Brennan and the former Rev. Edward Avery.
Brennan and Avery are each accused of molesting a boy in the 1990s. Prosecutors say that Lynn, as Secretary for Clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, enabled them by ignoring allegations or suspicions that they would abuse children. All have pleaded not guilty.
One of the proposed juror questions read: Do you believe child sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the Catholic Church?
Sarmina ordered the question to be struck from the list, saying: "Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet."
Bergstrom and Lindy claimed the remark, which was reported by the Inquirer, stoked "a noteworthy public outcry." They cited more than two dozen comments criticizing the judge that were posted, mostly by anonymous readers, on Philly.com and a news release by the Catholic League, a New York-based advocacy group.
On Monday, Sarmina handed prosecutors a significant pretrial victory in the case, when she said they will be allowed to tell jurors what Lynn and other church leaders knew and did about at least 22 other priests suspected of child-sex abuse over decades.
In their recusal motion, Lynn's lawyers also cited that ruling as proof that "reiterates the appearance of bias in the court's approach to the case."