Silencing Justice
A State Supreme Court Justice Tries to Stifle outside Discussion of Clergy Sex Abuse Cases

Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
February 13, 2003

It can hardly be overstated how different an institution the Catholic Church is now than it was a year or so ago. Revelations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests -- so numerous, so sickening and so long-standing -- have ripped down the shrouds of secrecy. What the church once deflected in private it now confronts mostly in the open.

In Dallas last summer, the American Catholic bishops vowed to level with the faithful as they instituted a policy that left no place for sexually abusive priests anywhere in the clergy. Only now comes some of the most sustained resistance. And it comes from beyond the church, from the halls of secular power.

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi made an audacious ruling Tuesday that threatens to resurrect the very secrecy that had enabled the tiny minority of sexual perverts within the priesthood to act as they did. The judge imposed what amounts to a gag order in all lawsuits, those filed and those yet to be filed, against the Albany diocese and its priests. If Judge Teresi has his way, no one -- not even victims -- will be permitted to speak outside the courtroom about these incidents.

Why would he take such action so susceptible to constitutional challenge, particularly when there was no request for a gag order?

The judge's concern seems to be finding impartial juries in these lawsuits. He has expressed the fear that "rumor, gossip and innuendo in this small community" could prejudice potential jurors.

Yet rumors and innuendo and the like will persist, of course. The church, and specifically the Albany diocese, is under intense scrutiny in this region. What Judge Teresi's order threatens to do is suppress the facts. Victims who can't speak out about their pain, and lawyers who can't openly act as advocates for their clients' interests, will leave the public at greater risk of the trauma of sexual abuse by priests. Theirs is a crime that was perpetuated so often because the consequences stayed hidden. To treat such complaints seriously requires that they be resolved in the public light.

Judge Teresi knows, surely, that the law provides any number of methods of ensuring fair juries, from aggressive questioning by lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants alike to changes of venue. None of them requires the silencing of the participants.

It's well worth noting that in Boston, where more than one sexually abusive priest has gone off to prison, and where Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to resign, no judge has tried to silence anyone in connection with this churchwide scandal.

Judge Teresi's record of acting aggressively is instructive here. He was once censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for sending defendants to jail without a contempt hearing. Now he is threatening free and open speech.

A judge with such unusually strong concerns about the dispensation of three pending lawsuits against the Albany diocese ought to reconsider his unwillingness to recuse himself. The threat to justice being served comes not from those inclined to exercise their right to speak, but from the judge who would silence them.


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