Do Lawyers Defending The Catholic Church Live On Another Planet?
Read more about our law firm’s Catholic Priest Abuse practice.
As I’ve mentioned before, I think the motivations that compel lawyers to deny reality while defending some clients are varied and complex, but it cannot be denied that, in many cases, the defense is premised not on providing explanations or raising genuine doubts, but on burying the truth.
Lest we forget what brought us to the ongoing criminal trial of Monsignor William Lynn, here is how the grand jury report against him begins:
In September 2003, a grand jury of local citizens released a report detailing a sad history of sexual abuse by priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. That abuse was known, tolerated, and hidden by high church officials, up to and including the Cardinal himself. The previous grand jury was frustrated that it could not charge either the abusers or their protectors in the church, because the successful cover-up of the abuse resulted in the expiration of the statute of limitations. Now, measures taken in response to the previous report have led to new information about more recent abuse, which this grand jury was empaneled to investigate. The fact that we received that information, and from the church itself, is some sign of progress; and this time there will be charges.
The present grand jury, however, is frustrated to report that much has not changed. The rapist priests we accuse were well known to the Secretary of Clergy, but he cloaked their conduct and put them in place to do it again. The procedures implemented by the Archdiocese to help victims are in fact designed to help the abusers, and the Archdiocese itself. Worst of all, apparent abusers – dozens of them, we believe – remain on duty in the Archdiocese, today, with open access to new young prey.
And so we come to the latest, but not the last, controversy in the criminal case, this time over the remarks made by presiding Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. A week ago, before the trial began, the lawyers for the Catholic Church wanted to ask potential jurors, “Do you believe child sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the Catholic Church?” Judge Sarmina struck the question, answering “Anybody that doesn’t think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet.”
Imagine that: a judge saying what they really think about an issue relating to a case. There is a long-running strand of American politics that maintains judges should be as cold, inhuman, and calculating as possible, with even the Chief Justice of the United States falsely claiming that his job involves nothing more than calling balls and strikes like an umpire. Anyone who has spent any significant time around the justice system, however, can tell you that the last thing you want is a grocery clerk deciding your fate by thumbing through statutes and court opinions to find some sentence or paragraph somewhere that, they claim, already decided your fate before you walked in the door. Law involves living, breathing people in difficult and complicated situations that rarely line up with simple rules of thumb. When we deny that judges have their own thoughts and feelings, we don’t make those thoughts and feelings go away, we just put them where we can’t see them.
The lawyers for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have claimed that Judge Sarmina’s remark shows that Judge Sarmina is too biased against the Catholic Church to oversee the case anymore, and have demanded her recusal. We could spend all day discussing whether or not such a comment actually reveals the sort of bias that might preclude a judge from fairly overseeing a case. The standard in Pennsylvania is quite muddy: a judge should recuse themselves where “his or her continued involvement in the case creates an appearance of impropriety and/or would tend to undermine public confidence in the judiciary.” Commonwealth v. Abu-Jamal, 553 Pa. 485, 720 A.2d 79, 89 (1998).
But we don’t need to go through that.
In support of their argument, the Catholic Church’s lawyers cited, apparently without any sense of shame or irony, “two dozen comments criticizing the judge, posted mostly by anonymous readers on Philly.com,” and a press release issued by the Catholic League, which is a public relations front for the Catholic Church. The comments to Philly.com have long been known as the cesspool of the Philadelphia online world; as Philebrity says, “two dozen critical comments on Philly.com counts as a noteworthy public outcry now? So this story about Platt Bridge construction is well on its way to noteworthy public outcry, while this article on amounts of snow fall has at least two critical comments.”
To see if sexual abuse is “widespread” within the Catholic Church, why not consult a source even the Catholic Church’s own lawyers would find credible: the report by John Jay College researchers commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.” How widespread is the child abuse?
The results of the Nature and Scope study indicated that the total number of priests with allegations from 1950 through 2002 was 4,392 out of a total of 109,694 priests who served in ministry at some point during that time. The number of accused priests is equivalent to 4 percent of priests in ministry. The majority of priests with allegations (69 percent) were diocesan priests; 4.27 percent of diocesan priests and 2.7 percent of religious priests had allegations of abuse. The number of individual reports of sexual abuse by priests made known to dioceses by early 2003 was 10,667.
Remember, these numbers come from the Catholic Church itself, as tabulated by a study they commissioned, a study so biased in favor of the church that it defined “prepubescent” as 10 years and younger — rather than 13 years and younger, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — to avoid properly classifying most of those allegations of childhood sexual abuse as involving prepubescent children.
I’d call over 10,000 reports of sexual abuse against over 4,000 different priests to be “widespread,” not least because the numbers are certainly far, far higher. Bishop-Accountability.org says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own numbers actually put the number of clerics accused closer to 6,000, and that the number of victims is closer to 16,000. For every victim who has come forward, how many remain silent? Two? Ten? A hundred?
Coincidentally, on the same day, Philadelphia Weekly published a story explaining why efforts to reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse (discussed in more detail in my post about the sexual abuse at Penn State) have stalled out: because the Catholic Conference has fought tooth and nail to prevent it. And in that battle they have trotted out the same bias charges:
Charges of anti-Catholic prejudice were key to the Denver strategy, which reportedly included hiring a boutique PR firm, writing and distributing sermons for pastors to read from the pulpit and asking churchgoers to fill out postcards with messages on them to be mailed to legislators.
Gwyn Green was the sponsor of legislation that would have lifted the statute of limitation and created a window. “The Archdiocese fought it quite a bit,” says Green, 73, on the phone from her home in Golden, Colorado. “Actually the Catholic Conference, and then it seems that they reached the insurance companies who said to the members of the legislature, ‘If you pass this legislation, we will no longer insure your public schools’ so I lost the votes to pass that.”
The main message went roughly like this: Window legislation is anti-Catholic bias unless a companion bill opens a window on possible lawsuits against public schools.
“The information I got was that the Catholic Conference brought in national lobbyists and as I understand it, a great deal of money was being spent to defeat the bill, which they were successful at,” says Green. “Every week in the Denver Catholic Register, Joan Fitz-Gerald, the president of the Senate and I were vilified … They smeared our reputation and with many people it ruined our reputations, and that continues to this day.”
Green says she and Sen. Fitz-Gerald were called names. “Both of us are very Catholic and accused of being anti-Catholic, of trying to destroy the church, all that nonsense.”
And so this same anti-Catholic bias claim is now being thrown at Judge Sarmina, with the Church’s lawyers claiming “harbors a firm predisposed opinion against the Catholic Church and its representatives,” despite her educational pedigree — St. Mary’s for undergraduate, Georgetown for law — and her doing nothing more than stating a simple, indisputable fact.
The great tragedy here is that, while the Catholic Church uses its considerable influence to evade responsibility for its sins, child abuse remains a particular problem in Pennsylvania, as noted by the Philadelphia Weekly story:
According to the Department of Health and Human Services 2010 Child Maltreatment Report, Pennsylvania is a statistical outlier in the investigation and determination of child abuse. We investigate child abuse 8.3 per 1,000 children versus 40.3 per 1,000 children nationally, and then we determine a child is a victim of child abuse 1.4 per 1,000 children versus 9.3 per 1,000 nationally.
Sexual abuse has been “widespread” in the Catholic Church and “widespread” in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar or a fool.