PHILADELPHIA — Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the retired head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and an uncharged central figure in a child sex-abuse case that involves the alleged shuffling of predator priests to unwitting parishes, has died. He was 88.
Bevilacqua died in his sleep Tuesday night — days after lawyers battled over his competence to testify at an upcoming trial — at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood after battling dementia and an undisclosed form of cancer, an archdiocese spokeswoman said. He had been the spiritual leader of the 1.5 million-member Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1988 until his retirement in 2003.
Bevilacqua, trained in both civil and canon law, was sharply criticized but never charged by two Philadelphia grand juries investigating child sex abuse complaints lodged against dozens of priests in the archdiocese.
In the days before his death, a Philadelphia judge had ruled him competent to testify if called as a witness in the child-endangerment trial of a high-ranking former aide accused of moving sexually-abusive priests to new churches as part of a systematic cover-up of child sex allegations.
Last year, following the second grand jury report, prosecutors said not much had changed since the first investigation, when the "abuse was known, tolerated, and hidden by high church officials, up to and including the Cardinal (Bevilacqua) himself."
As a church leader, Bevilacqua campaigned for a moratorium on the death penalty and often spoke out against homosexuality, birth control and abortion. He headed the influential bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
In 2002, when the church came under fire for clerical sexual abuse, he called homosexuality an "aberration, a moral evil" and suggested gays were more likely to commit abuse. Under Bevilacqua, the Philadelphia archdiocese tried to weed out gay candidates to the priesthood and expelled any seminarian found to be an active homosexual — a zero-tolerance policy experts called relatively rare.
He was not averse to new methods of outreach. Heeding the pope's call for a "New Evangelization," Bevilacqua used then-novel methods, such a toll-free confession line, a live weekly radio call-in program and an online forum for people to pose questions to priests.
"We are carrying out the wishes of the Holy Father for a new evangelization, reaching out to people like never before," Bevilacqua said after a telephone hotline began in 1998.
At the same time, attendance at weekly Mass and Catholic school enrollment was falling in some parts of the archdiocese, leading him to close inner-city schools and parishes. The decline continues. The five-county archdiocese just this month announced plans to close 48 schools, displacing nearly 24,000 students.
Bevilacqua, as required, had submitted his retirement to Pope John Paul II when he turned 75 in 1998. But the pope did not accept it at that time, and the cardinal kept up 16-hour days into his late 70s.
"I exercise regularly and my whole work is constant activity of the mind. A lot of reading, meetings, analyses and discussions," he said at age 77. "My life as an archbishop is delightfully hectic."
He made a habit of rising daily at 5 a.m. to pray, lift weights and run several miles on a treadmill at home. "Come 8 o'clock, my day is not my own," he said.
But he settled into retirement after turning 80 in 2003. The first grand jury began its work that year. Bevilacqua's successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired last year after the second grand jury report led to the charges against Monsignor William Lynn and four others, including three priests charged with rape. Both reports blasted Bevilacqua's leadership.
Lynn was the first U.S. church official ever charged in the priest-abuse scandal for his administrative actions. His lawyers argue that he took orders from Bevilacqua. Lynn's trial is scheduled to start in March.
The grand jury that charged Lynn last year said he "routinely and knowingly placed abusive priests in positions where they would have continued access to children" with Bevilacqua's knowledge and under his direction.
Bevilacqua had been deposed in late November to preserve his testimony, given his age and illnesses. But defense lawyers said he no longer recognized Lynn and could not remember much about his own 10 grueling appearances before the grand jury in 2003 and 2004.
"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.
Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua was born in 1923, in Brooklyn, the ninth of 11 children of Italian immigrants.
He graduated from Cathedral College in 1943, then attended Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y., before being ordained a priest in 1949.
He earned a doctoral degree in canon law from Gregorian University, Rome, in 1956, a master's degree in political science from Columbia University in 1962 and a law degree from St. John's University Law School in 1975. While he was admitted to practice law in New York and Pennsylvania, he never argued in a court.
In 1976, he was named chancellor of the Brooklyn Diocese. He was ordained as a bishop in 1980 and made auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn.
He remained chancellor of the diocese and director of its Migration and Refugee Office until 1983, when Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Associated Press Writer Ron Todt contributed to this report.