In the high-profile criminal trial of Philadelphia's Msgr. William Lynn and Fr. James Brennan last summer, attorneys for the accused priests were left facing a judge, Teresa Sarmina, who was so unfair and biased that she was actually described as "often mistaken for a member of the prosecution team."
Months later, attorneys for Fr. Charles Engelhardt and former teacher Bernard Shero, the defendants in the current criminal trial, were surely hoping to fare better with a different judge. Unfortunately, Judge Ellen Ceisler does not seem to be living up to her duty of overseeing a fair and impartial trial.
The courtroom "needed strong direction"
Veteran writer Ralph Cipriano, who has by far provided the best, in-depth coverage of the Philadelphia clergy trials, reports a disconcerting exchange from the trial proceedings on Thursday. It is an exchange that indicates that Ceisler – like Sarmina before her – may be another pro-prosecution partisan.
Cipriano describes the scene when Philly D.A. Mark Cipolletti was questioning ex-priest Edward Avery, who recanted his guilty plea under oath to abusing a 10-year-old back in the late 1990s:
"The prosecutor [Cipolletti] was no longer interested in what the witness had to say, frequently cutting off Avery's answers. Defense lawyers reacted by falling all over themselves to make objections, saying that the prosecutor wasn't letting Avery finish his answers. This was true. Sadly, the judge meekly went along with the charade, and the result was the prisoner frequently was silenced.
"And many in the audience wondered what else Avery might have to say. But instead they were treated to more oratory from the prosecutor.
"Cipolletti went into one long discourse about how abuser priests like Avery had betrayed the faith of young boys who made the fatal mistake of trusting them, prompting McGovern to stand up and ask the judge if it was time for closing arguments, because Cipolletti was certainly making one.
"I'm ready to give my closing as well, the defense lawyer told the judge.
"That won't be necessary, the judge told McGovern. The situation in the courtroom, however, had deteriorated, and plainly needed strong direction, but none was forthcoming from the bench. For a fleeting moment, some defense lawyers in the courtroom, which included a former member of Lynn's defense team, may have actually missed M. Teresa Sarmina, the prosecution-friendly but no-nonsense judge who presided over the Lynn trial."
Apparently, Ceisler is demonstrating a lack of ability – or will – to control her courtroom. Meanwhile, prosecutors seek to run wild.
This may be a troubling sign.
Who is Ellen Green-Ceisler?
Judge Ellen Green-Ceisler was elected to the bench in 2007. A former Philadelphia Assistant D.A. herself, she is also the ex-wife of a powerful public relations manager, Larry Ceisler; yet the two apparently have remained close enough that he helped to heavily fund her election campaign.
In her 2007 campaign to serve on the bench, Ceisler scored endorsements from a number of radical organizations, a number of whom openly oppose the Catholic Church on several hot topics.
Among the groups to endorse Ceisler were the "Liberty City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club Outfront! PAC"; the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (Philadelphia NOW); and Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).
Regarding her endorsement by the Liberty City LGBT Group, Ceisler filled out a questionnaire for the organization, in which she stated her firm support for gay marriage and gay adoption.
The question now is whether Ceisler's connections with these radical groups will interfere with her duty to give a Catholic priest and a former Catholic schoolteacher a fair and impartial trial which the Constitution guarantees them.