Judge Accused of Bias Quits 3 Diocese Cases
Albany -- Recusal Comes after Plaintiffs' Lawyer Asks Appeals Court to Oust Jurist from Civil Lawsuits

By Andrew Tilghman
Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
March 14, 2003

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi has removed himself from three lawsuits involving the Albany Diocese, stepping aside amid questions about his impartiality and his alleged secret communications with church officials.

Teresi's recusal came two days after attorney John Aretakis, whose clients were sexually abused by priests, urged an appeals court to remove the judge, contending the jurist is biased in favor of the church.

"I have become the public focus of these cases. That attention is not beneficial to the plaintiffs or the defendants," Teresi wrote in letter Wednesday to state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Keegan, the administrative judge for the Third District, a seven-county area that includes Albany County.

A new judge will be assigned to the three lawsuits, in which people who say they were victims of sexual abuse allege church officials tried to intimidate and manipulate them in an effort to prevent them from filing formal complaints or hiring attorneys.

Teresi rejected Aretakis' first request for recusal in February, which contended Teresi may be biased in favor of the church because he is a deeply religious Catholic and his wife teaches at a Catholic school in Delmar.

The latest questions about confidential communications between the judge and the diocese arose after Teresi issued on Feb. 10 a "strict cautionary," warning attorneys against public statements about current and future lawsuits involving the Albany Diocese.

Victims said they considered the sweeping order an effort to silence them and to stop them from speaking out about clergy abuse and the way church leaders handled it. Teresi subsequently clarified his warning, saying it applied solely to lawyers.

Teresi made the order after to a selection of newspaper articles about sexual abuse by Albany priests, which he said illustrated his concerns about public statements that could prejudice potential jurors in current and future lawsuits.

New allegations indicate that church officials sent some of those newspaper stories to Teresi, communication that the judge and the church's attorney did not disclose, according to a 38-page motion that Aretakis filed Monday with the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany.

In most cases, disciplinary codes prohibit judges and lawyers from communicating privately -- or "ex parte" -- about pending legal matters. Violations can lead to sanctions.

Several of the news articles, which the judge said he "culled from various sources," have computer coding at the top and bottom of the pages indicating they were printouts from from the diocese's spokesman, Ken Goldfarb. One article contains handwriting that Aretakis identified as that of the church's attorney, Michael Costello.

The Rev. Kenneth Doyle in a statement Monday said: "The Albany Diocese and its attorneys have conducted themselves properly throughout these proceedings. They will answer the motion in court."

Aretakis said he hopes the appellate court will overturn the "gag order" that he said has prohibited him from publicly advocating on behalf of his clients who say they were sexually abused by Albany priests.

"I believe the diocese and their lawyers still need to explain why the court has documents from the diocese and their lawyer, and how these documents factored into the gag order," he said Wednesday.

The lawsuits filed by Aretakis are not based on sexual abuse that allegedly took place decades ago; therefore, they do not fall within the state's three-year statute of limitations. Instead, the lawsuits target the conduct of church officials last year when alleged victims came forward with complaints. One suit seeks $450,000, the other two do not include monetary figures. Teresi was elected to the bench in 1993.

He presided over the 2000 trial in Albany of four white New York City police officers acquitted in the Amadou Diallo killing. Teresi was censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2001 for being discourteous and putting people in jail for contempt without a hearing.

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