Are the priests charged with sexual abuse in Philadelphia going to get an honest trial? There are several compelling reasons to think they might not.
1. There should be serious concern about the impartiality of the presiding judge, Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes. Judge Hughes also oversaw the recent grand jury, from which the current criminal charges materialized. As we've outlined before, the Philadelphia grand jury report is quite factually fallacious, mean-spirited, and misleading in its presentation.
How is it fair that the judge who supervised the grand jury be the same person who presides at the criminal trial? Isn't a judge supposed to be impartial?
When a defense lawyer asked Hughes to recuse herself from the case, she flat-out refused.
Most remarkably, at one point during the March 25 hearing, Hughes remarked to a defense lawyer, "Avery, Engelhardt, and Shero (three of the defendants) picked a child and singled him out."
Wait a minute. Isn't it the job of a jury to determine the validity of that serious claim – a claim that the prosecution is making, but the defense strongly denies – during a trial?
Again: Where's the impartiality? Where's the fairness?
2. During the March 25 hearing, Michael McGovern, the lawyer for Fr. Charles Engelhardt, loudly complained that the government has not yet presented all of the evidence against his client. He also asked for a preliminary hearing.
Judge Hughes rudely dismissed his concerns and rejected his request. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, an agitated McGovern exclaimed, "This is so patently unfair! What kind of country is this?"
A short time later, McGovern calmly stated, "I just want a preliminary hearing, Judge."
"I heard you, baby, and you're not getting it," replied Hughes.
When McGovern protested, the judge snapped back at the attorney, "You need to shut up," and then ordered him to sit.
On another occasion, after a defense attorney challenged her, Hughes cracked, "Well, snapdoodle! Shut up and sit down!"
"Baby"? "You need to shut up"? "Well, snapdoodle!"? "Shut up and sit down!"? Is this how a professional and impartial judge addresses lawyers in a courtroom packed with observers?
Meanwhile, the government lawyers who are prosecuting the priests have received no such harsh treatment from Hughes. They have been able to sit back comfortably and enjoy the fireworks.
(While a preliminary hearing is not guaranteed under the Constitution, it is guaranteed that a defendant be presented with all of the evidence against him. The government still has more time to turn over its evidence, apparently.)
3. In addition, Judge Hughes has been especially harsh towards accused priest Fr. James Brennan and his lawyer, Richard L. DeSipio. In a courtroom overflowing with spectators, during the March 14 hearing, Judge Hughes angrily screamed at the accused priest and branded him a liar.
Why? Well, during the grand jury proceedings, which were several months ago, a frightened Fr. Brennan tearfully told Judge Hughes that he was unable to afford a lawyer. The judge, therefore, assigned him a public defense attorney.
But this was before Brennan was publicly charged with the crimes. After the cleric was publicly charged and a huge media firestorm ensued, friends, family, and supporters came forward to fund a pair of private defense attorneys.
When Hughes heard that Fr. Brennan had hired his own attorneys, she openly berated the priest, "You lied to me! You jerked me around!"
Fr. Brennan obviously didn't "lie." He didn't "jerk anyone around." At the time he said he needed representation, he believed what he was saying was true; he couldn't afford a lawyer. He had no idea that supporters would later step up and assist him.
Judge Hughes' mean outburst was incredibly unwarranted and unfair.
Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Brennan's attorney addressed the media, "It's a shame you didn't have [your cameras and recorders] in the courtroom because she screamed at that man."
But she obviously scored huge points with the media sitting in the courtroom, which included the New York Times' Maureen Dowd and journalists from the notoriously slanted CNN.
4. Also at the March 14 hearing, Judge Hughes disrespectfully addressed the accused priest as "Mr. Brennan."
"She addressed him as Mr. Brennan, deliberately," said the cleric's attorney, Richard DeSipio. "He's a priest; it's Father Brennan." (Brennan has not been active as a priest since 2006, and canonical proceedings are in progress, yet he still retains the title as priest.)
Again, it must be repeated: We must demand justice and compassion for all victims of clergy abuse. This is not optional.
However, all clear-thinking people should demand a fair and proper trial for criminal defendants, no matter what the crime is. If these defendants are found guilty (and this is more likely than not, from what I've seen), they should be found guilty justly.
Without a fair and honest trial, can there ever be true justice?
Judge Hughes' one-sided and unnecessarily mean behavior only leads one to believe that "the fix is in" against the Church in Philadelphia. Judge Hughes appears determined to assure the prosecution a victory. She presents herself less as an impartial observer upholding the law and more as an angry spokesperson for SNAP.
And that is not right.