Lawyers for the Philadelphia cleric accused of enabling priests to sexually abuse boys have asked the trial judge to step down, saying she compromised her impartiality when she said anyone who doubted there was "widespread" child abuse in the Catholic Church "is living on another planet."
Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina's remark during a hearing last week suggested she "harbors a firm predisposed opinion against the Catholic Church and its representatives," the attorneys for Msgr. William J. Lynn argued in a motion filed Wednesday.
"Perhaps the court actually bears no biases. But that does not matter," lawyers Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy wrote. "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 on the recusal motion, citing rules of conduct that bar judges from discussing their cases. She is expected to address it at a hearing Wednesday.
The filing is the latest salvo among prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the judge. Lynn, the former secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, faces a March 26 trial on endangerment and conspiracy charges, the first time a church official will be tried in an alleged cover-up of 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. Avery has been defrocked; Brennan is in restricted ministry.
All three men have pleaded not guilty.
Sarmina's remark came during a Jan. 31 hearing in which she and the lawyers reviewed a questionnaire to be used when jury selection begins this month. One of the proposed questions read: Do you believe child sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the Catholic Church?
Sarmina ordered the question struck from the list, saying, "Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet."
Later in the hearing, Sarmina said she was removing the question in deference to the defendants so jurors would not automatically associate them with child sex-abuse scandals in other dioceses.
Still, Bergstrom and Lindy claimed the remark, reported by The Inquirer, stoked "a noteworthy public outcry" over the judge's ability to be fair. They cited more than two dozen comments criticizing the judge, posted mostly by anonymous readers on Philly.com. (The online reaction included a few comments praising or defending the judge, though far more called for her to recuse herself.)
The lawyers also cited a news release by the Catholic League, a New York-based advocacy group.
Sarmina's declaration that such abuse "is" widespread "shows she is unfit to rule," said Catholic League president Bill Donohue, who maintains that nearly all clergy sex abuse occurred between the 1960s and 1980s.
Sarmina, 59, was a prosecutor for more than a decade before being elected to the bench in 1997. She has not publicly discussed her own religious beliefs during the case, but her former campaign website says she attended at least two Catholic schools: St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., and the Georgetown University Law Center.
Lynn's lawyers have repeatedly challenged her rulings, if only to lay the groundwork for an appeal. Last month, they took the unusual step of petitioning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene in the case and declare that the charges against Lynn were legally flawed.
Their recusal motion said Sarmina's remark about widespread abuse followed a pattern of decisions that suggest "the appearance of bias in the court's approach to the case."
One they cited in particular was Sarmina's ruling this week that prosecutors 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.