Bevilacqua leaves sad, mixed legacy amid sex abuse

Feb 2, 2012, 1:53 AM

Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s death may not greatly alter the March trial of an aide charged with child endangerment for allegedly keeping predator-priests around children.

Bevilacqua’s testimony was preserved on videotape late last year, since he was 88 and ailing. And though a judge found him competent to testify, his dementia would have been evident on the witness stand, lawyers said.

Still, his 10 combative appearances before a Philadelphia grand jury in 2003 and 2004 exposed church secrets about 63 accused priests that ultimately rocked the Roman Catholic hierarchy _ and the cardinal himself, who grew reclusive in retirement.

Philadelphia priests raped boys in church sacristies, stripped them nude and whipped them as part of a Passion Play, got them drunk and showed them pornography _ and remained on the job, the 2005 grand jury report said.

“Cardinal Bevilacqua, a loyal son and leader of the church for so many years _ it was his misfortune to be in a place where all that was revealed in a very glaring way,” said Tom Roberts, editor at large of the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal-leaning newspaper for lay Catholics that first exposed the priest-abuse problem in the 1980s.

“Sexual abuse occurs everywhere, but I think the particular circumstances of the church that makes it a story that will not go away is it had the capacity to hide and protect so many for so long,” he said.

Bevilacqua died in his sleep Tuesday night at his church residence near Philadelphia. That same day, his longtime secretary for clergy, Monsignor William Lynn, appeared in court for a pretrial hearing in his unprecedented criminal case.

Lynn, 61, is the first U.S. church official ever charged with child endangerment for allegedly shuffling problem priests from job to job. Philadelphia prosecutors say the church thereby fed predators a steady stream of children.

“(The) abuse was known, tolerated, and hidden by high church officials, up to and including the Cardinal himself,” a second grand jury report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia alleged last year.

Just hours before Bevilacqua died, the presiding judge in Lynn’s trial called sexual abuse in the Catholic church “widespread.” Defense lawyers call Lynn a scapegoat for the cardinal and other archdiocesan officials.

Bevilacqua fought bitterly with prosecutors in his often hostile grand jury appearances. He bristled when prosecutors, grilling him about the hundreds of complaints buried in “secret archives” at the archdiocese, called him “Mr. Bevilacqua.”

“The very idea that a cardinal would get called before a grand jury was unheard of,” said Duquesne University law professor Nicholas P. Cafardi, who served as counsel to the Pittsburgh archdiocese during Bevilacqua’s tenure there in the late 1980s.

Bevilacqua’s grand jury testimony became public last year as part of the discovery process in Lynn’s case. It cannot be used at trial because he was not cross-examined, but his videotaped deposition, taken over two half-days in November, might be. Still, victim advocates hoped to hear him testify in person.

“With the passing of Cardinal Bevilacqua, we will never learn the full truth about clergy sex crimes and cover ups,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Defense lawyers say Lynn took direction on priest transfers from Bevilacqua. Prosecutors call the archdiocese under his tenure “an unindicted co-conspirator.”

No one was charged after the first grand jury because the complaints were years or decades old, and the statute of limitations had expired.

“Philadelphia had a very aggressive prosecutor who decided that regardless of the lack of statutes that would apply immediately, she wanted to know what went on. And what she discovered was a very, very ugly record,” Roberts said, speaking of former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. “But I don’t think Philadelphia necessarily was an outlier. We got to look at the unvarnished truth in a way that has not happened in many places.”

Bevilacqua liked to point out that he was trained in both civil and church, or canon, law. The ninth of 11 children born to Italian immigrants in Brooklyn, he got his law degree at night while working with immigrants in the Brooklyn archdiocese, Cafardi said.

“I find that very inspiring. He literally became a civil lawyer … in order to help the poor people whose rights he thought were being stepped on,” Cafardi said. “This all speaks of a very, very admirable guy. He did many heroic things. But the way he handled the sex abuse allegations in Philadelphia _ as opposed to how he handled them in Pittsburgh _ is just a tragic flaw.”

According to Cafardi, Bevilacqua moved accused priests in Pittsburgh to what he deemed “safe assignments,” such as chaplancies in retirement homes for religious men and women.

In Philadelphia, he led diocesan priests who had mostly attended the same seminary, St. Charles Borromeo, where the cardinal lived and this week died.

“I’ve often speculated he became a captive of the Philadelphia clerical culture, a culture where it’s inbred, and everybody watches everybody else’s back,” Cafardi said. “These are men who you’ve known for years, and you find it hard to believe that they’re capable of doing what they’re accused of doing.”

Three priests and a former Catholic school teacher were indicted along with Lynn. They are all charged with rape. Three are charged with raping the same child, starting when he was a 10-year-old altar boy.

“It’s a sad, sad, very mixed story because he was such an advocate for immigrants and, in many ways, the downtrodden. He apparently had a real pastor’s touch in meeting with people individually and at parishes,” Roberts said of the cardinal’s legacy.

“I don’t think any reading of his life can ignore what the documentation of the grand jury reports say about it. It would be really good for the church and the hierarchy to reflect on (that).”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Bevilacqua leaves sad, mixed legacy amid sex abuse