Justice on Trial
Cases Involving Clergy Sex Abuse Must Be Handled with Strict Impartiality

Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
March 20, 2003

Clarity is in order in the quest for justice by the people who say they were sexually abused by priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. Their cases are back at the beginning, awaiting assignment to a fair and impartial judge. It's critical that the judge who presides over the subsequent trials sends the unmistakable signal that all is aboveboard in the Albany County Courthouse.

That much isn't nearly as simple as it might be, or should be. Last week had state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi recusing himself from a case where far too much attention was focused on him and his imprudent actions. This week has the diocese acknowledging that it engaged in private and thus improper communications with the judge, prior to what had all the appearance of a gag order against the lawyers in the case.

The diocese acknowledges the essence of those communications, that is, but not their inappropriate nature. That's troubling.

The judge, who has yet to be appointed, will need to impress all interested parties that he or she will have no part of one-sided, ex parte communications with the lawyers in these cases. For the diocese to have submitted copies of newspaper articles to the judge, which then were cited as the reason for the cautionary order he issued, and to have submitted them without the apparent knowledge of the plaintiffs' attorney, is enough to undermine public confidence that a fair trial was to have been forthcoming.

Yes, the judge who apparently requested that material is gone from the case. But the diocese's belief that there was nothing improper about the transgressions that led to his recusal is as relevant as ever. These are difficult enough cases without any appearance of favoritism. Grown men have come forward to seek whatever compensation they can from the trauma they say they feel to this day over being sexually violated by priests. They are vulnerable even now, as they make a legal opponent of as powerful and influential an institution as the diocese. Whatever the merits of their claims, travesty prevails if they, or anyone else, has reason to think the legal system gives an advantage to the other side.

These cases pose an unusual challenge, for justice here needs to be especially blind.


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