The judge presiding over lawsuits against the Albany Catholic Diocese refused to withdraw from the case despite being a practicing Catholic, while imposing a gag order on both sides in the suits alleging sex abuse by priests.
“I do practice my faith,” State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi said. But he doesn’t consider himself either “deeply religious” or “a close friend” of anybody in the case, adding he hasn’t discussed it with any clergy, including Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard.
“As uneasy as your clients may be about me being the judge on this case, I want you to assure them, please, that this case will be decided on nothing else but the law and the facts,” Teresi said at a hearing Monday.
Attorney John Aretakis asked the judge to recuse himself, citing possible or perceived bias toward the suits by unnamed plaintiffs against diocese officials. The three suits are combined before Teresi’s court.
“A lot of the people I represent are more than just skeptical about the possibility of getting a fair shake or an impartial arbiter of the law in these cases,” Aretakis said.
The lawyer, who has known Teresi socially for several years, said the judge often attends the early weekday Mass at St. Mary’s Church near the courthouse and is “the most deeply religious and spiritual person with a great deal of faith in his Catholic Church.”
Teresi called that description “hyperbole.”
Michael Costello, attorney for the diocese, said recusal turns on a judge’s personal conscience, and that Teresi has always conducted himself with integrity.
Teresi later issued the gag order on the lawyers, which was made public Tuesday, limiting their case discussions to parties, witnesses, investigators, staff, experts and similar individuals. He noted that some of their emotional rhetoric was “scandalous” and related to the character or reputation of people involved.
“I feel there is a necessity for a ruling on this issue in order to limit any embarrassment, pressure and indignation suffered by the claimants and plaintiffs in these cases as witnesses and parties,” Teresi said. He noted both sides had been talking often to the press, and the court has “responsibility to limit rumor, gossip and innuendo” in a small community where jurors may be drawn.
The judge told Costello he should give a copy of the gag order to any attorney that contacts the diocese representing a client who has or intends to make a claim. Teresi also said that abuse claims characterized as credible or that result in a change in a priest’s ministry or employment status may also fall within the rule.
The 14-county Albany diocese recently removed from ministry two priests due to what church officials described as credible allegations that they sexually abused children in the 1970s the seventh and eighth such removals since last summer.
“I represent scores of victims who have been silenced for 10, 20, 30 years or more, some as young as six or seven years old,” Aretakis said. “To come public with their claim is part of their healing, and it’s also part of what I like to think that we’re trying to do to help protect children.”
Teresi said he isn’t convinced at this point of “a public safety interest” served by Aretakis’ clients speaking publicly. “This is not a criminal case. This is a civil case,” he said.
Teresi got the case after Acting Supreme Court Justice Thomas McNamara recused himself a month ago. McNamara did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday.