Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Fairness, decency not in evidence in the Philadelphia abuse case

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 02, 2012

In the prosecution of three priests from the Philadelphia archdiocese, the level of hostility toward the Catholic Church has become so pronounced that it’s difficult to see how a fair trial could take place.

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Prosecutors have indicted one former official of the archdiocese (along with two other priests). But they have described the archdiocese itself as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” In practice, that seems to mean that the prosecutors can make charges against the archdiocese without having to worry about rebuttal, since there are no lawyers in the courtroom to defend the archdiocese.

Meanwhile the judge in the case, Teresa Sarmina has showed her own hostility with the outrageous statement: “Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet.” Notice that her claim is voiced in the present tense. She is not saying that there was abuse in the past: a claim that can easily be supported. She’s saying that there is widespread abuse now. Maybe we don’t even need a trial; she’s declared the Church guilty already!

Judge Sarmina’s willingness to wage war on the Catholic hierarchy had been evident when she ruled that Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was competent to testify in the case, despite his advanced illness and dementia.

From the spectator’s seats, David Clohessy of SNAP applauded the judge’s ruling, and suggested that the cardinal’s lawyers were exaggerating his illness. “For far too long, too many Catholic officials have feigned illnesses and memory lapses' (sic) to avoid facing tough questions, in open court, under oath,” Clohessy said.

The cardinal’s doctors disagreed. Less than 36 hours after the judge issued her ruling, they pronounced the cardinal dead.

One wonders: Will Clohessy apologize for his mean-spirited comment? Will Judge Sarmina recognize that she was wrong in her assessment of the cardinal’s condition? Or is the rush to convict so overwhelming that people can’t be bothered with little things like fairness and decency?


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - May. 18, 2019 7:55 AM ET USA

    Benedict wrote about "homosexual cliques," which acted openly and "significantly changed" various seminaries. This is the major revelation that leads to questions: Were the recent Popes, or local bishops, or the rectors unable to stop it, and why? Does it continue and spread today? Do the cliques end at seminary level, or do they carry on into priesthood and episcopacy? How did it affect the figures of sincere priestly vocations? How widespread is the problem in different countries, and in Rome?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 03, 2012 8:19 PM ET USA

    Joe Paterno's unbearably painful and sad demise after PSU's scandal serve only to reinforce the obvious. When adults fail in their duties to protect innocent children from monstrous predators, there is no "mercy", "fairness", or "decency." One article states: "Avery, 69, is charged with raping a 10-year-old altar boy who prosecutors say was passed on to another priest and teacher and raped again." Joe Pa's was a Shakespearean demise of unimaginable sorrow. Sadly, it comes with the territory.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 03, 2012 5:55 PM ET USA

    The judge has demonstrated bias. She should step down from the bench in this case. Or at the very least another judge should be allowed to determine whether she has disqualified herself from hearing it.

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Feb. 02, 2012 9:35 PM ET USA

    “For far too long, too many Catholic officials have feigned illnesses and memory lapses' (sic) to avoid facing tough questions, in open court, under oath,” Open mouth, insert foot. Oops, I mean hoof.