Sex abuse 'widespread' in Catholic Church, Philadelphia judge says

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina: "Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet."
Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina: "Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet."
Posted: February 01, 2012

The judge in the trial of two Catholic priests and a former priest declared her belief Tuesday that sexual abuse was "widespread" in the Catholic Church.

Reviewing a list of questions to be asked of potential jurors, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina arrived at one that read "Do you believe child sex abuse is a widespread problem in the Catholic Church?" and hesitated.

"Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet," she said, recommending the question be stricken from the list.

Jeffrey Lindy, part of a team of lawyers hired by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to represent one of the defendants, Msgr. William J. Lynn, responded: "I'm taken aback by that conclusion, frankly."

That question and Sarmina's response exposed the subtle tension that ran through much of the hearing Tuesday as prosecutors and defense lawyers worked to finalize the more than 50 questions they will pose to the pool of 250 potential jurors later this month.

At its heart is this question: Will the trial focus narrowly on the actions of the three defendants or include a broader review of archdiocese's handling of sex-abuse allegations over decades?

Judging by the report issued by a Philadelphia grand jury nearly a year ago, prosecutors are aiming for the latter.

The 124-page document outlines years of allegations against at least 37 clergymen and condemns the church hierarchy for failing to report the claims to police and shuffling the accused between parishes for years.

Only a handful of priests could be charged because many of the purported acts fell outside the statute of limitations, the panel concluded.

Grand jurors recommended charges against the Rev. James J. Brennan and Edward Avery, now a former priest, for allegedly abusing boys in separate incidents in the 1990s.

Lynn stands accused of child endangerment and conspiracy for allegedly placing the pair in positions where they could continue to abuse children.

As secretary for clergy until 2004, he was tasked with investigating sex-abuse allegations against priests and recommending treatment or new assignments for them.

During Tuesday's hearing, Sarmina seemed inclined to limit the trial's scope to Lynn and his codefendants - at least when it comes to questioning jurors.

Lawyers use the opportunity to interview the jury pool - known as voir dire - to weed out those with biases that would impair their ability to render a fair verdict. But the questions they ask must be approved by a judge.

Over and over, Sarmina objected Tuesday to questions that would expose jurors' opinions on sex abuse in general or their beliefs about how the case against the three has affected the archdiocese.

She challenged one question that asked potential jurors their opinion on the sex-abuse scandal unfolding at Pennsylvania State University. Another question, which asked whether jurors believed the archdiocese's sex-abuse case was tied to its decision last month to close 48 parochial schools, also came under review.

Explaining her objections, Sarmina argued that she hoped no matter what potential jurors believed about the church or sex abuse at large, they would be able to render a verdict solely on the facts given at trial.

Probing jurors on whether they believe abuse is widespread within the church would only attach the case against Lynn and his codefendants to the wider abuse scandal that has touched Catholic dioceses worldwide, she said.

William J. Brennan, the lawyer for James J. Brennan, split from the other defense lawyers to support Sarmina's logic.

"I don't want this to be a trial about the church," he said. "If it is, we're going to lose."

But Lynn's attorneys feared there was no way to avoid involving the broader accusations.

"This is a trial about the church," Lindy said Tuesday. "It's going to expand beyond the people here."

Last week, prosecutors sought Sarmina's approval to bring up at the trial dozens of past allegations of abuse, stretching back decades, to help establish a pattern of cover-up. Defense lawyers have argued the move would only inflame the jury.

Sarmina has yet to rule on the motion.

In other developments Tuesday, the judge agreed that the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, accused in the 1996 rape of a boy in St. Jerome Parish, should be tried separately from the other defendants in the case.

His lawyer had previously argued that because his client was a member of a separate order - the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales - he should not be tried alongside those allegedly involved in an archdiocesan cover-up.

Lynn, Avery, and Brennan have entered "not guilty" pleas. Jury selection in their case is scheduled to begin Feb 22.


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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