Recusal rebuffed in church sex abuse comment

February 20, 2012 12:01 am

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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.

First Published 2012-02-19 23:20:04

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