The judge in the child-endangerment trial of a Philadelphia cleric Wednesday denied defense lawyers' request that she withdraw from the case, saying they took a comment about the prevalence of child sex-abuse in the Catholic Church "completely out of context" to stir controversy.
"Other than the statement that has been distorted and taken out of context, the defense has not and cannot identify a single instance during these lengthy proceedings where I have been other than balanced, fair, and impartial," Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said.
Sarmina's ruling came a week after lawyers for Msgr. William J. Lynn asked her to recuse herself, citing a remark she made during a pretrial conference.
During that Jan. 31 courtroom session to discuss a jury questionnaire, Sarmina rejected a question proposed by Lynn's lawyers that would have asked prospective jurors if they believed child-sex abuse was a "widespread" problem in the church.
She called the question overly broad, adding: "Anyone that doesn't think there was widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet."
Lynn's attorneys, Jeffrey Lindy and Thomas Bergstrom, seized on the remark, arguing in a motion that it showed Sarmina "harbors a firm predisposed opinion against the Catholic Church and its representatives." They said she lost the perception of impartiality and should step aside.
Sarmina said the lawyers misquoted her - a mistake she said was perpetuated in The Inquirer - and misrepresented the setting.
"It was a work session, which called for give-and-take and candor, and even playing devil's advocate, as we strove to come up with the best language to help identify the biases of prospective jurors," the judge said.
Sarmina said her comment referred to past reports of abuse and didn't reflect on current clergy, including the hundreds of Philadelphia priests "laboring under an unfair cloud of suspicion not of their making."
She added: "Whether there was widespread sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church is not an issue to be decided in this trial."
Lindy took issue with the judge's ruling, insisting he did not misquote her.
Minutes later, he was again treading the same ground, this time a bit loudly. He said a separate ruling by the judge was "fundamentally unfair" and said her decisions in the last six months repeatedly stacked the deck against the defense.
"Has Msgr. Lynn won a ruling yet?" Lindy asked the judge twice in a rising voice. "We haven't won a ruling!"
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington then called Lindy "a petulant child" whose complaints were weak. "You see, I can shout, too!" he said, perhaps a decibel or two lower than the defense attorney.
It was unclear if the tensions were real or a dress rehearsal for a packed courtroom. Jury selection begins next week. Opening arguments are at least five weeks away.
Lynn, the former secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is the first church official facing trial for allegedly covering up clergy sex abuse.
Prosecutors say he recommended two priests, James J. Brennan and Edward Avery, for parish assignments in the 1990s despite knowing or suspecting they would abuse children. Both men have been charged in separate incidents of molesting a boy.
All three defendants have pleaded not guilty.