PHILADELPHIA — The child-molestation scandal in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has taken a mysterious new turn, with prosecutors asking a coroner to examine the body of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to establish whether he died of natural causes.
Risa Vetri Ferman, district attorney in suburban Montgomery County, said Friday that she wants to lay to rest any speculation about Bevilacqua's end, given the "peculiar" timing of the 88-year-old cardinal's death just a day after a judge ruled him competent to testify at the trial of his longtime aide.
Bevilacqua, spiritual leader of the archdiocese's 1.5 million Roman Catholics from 1988 to 2003, died Jan. 31 at a seminary and was laid to rest without an autopsy. He was suffering from dementia and cancer, according to church officials and his lawyers, and his death was widely assumed to be from natural causes.
Montgomery County Coroner Walter Hofman told The Philadelphia Inquirer that prosecutors want to "make sure there were no intervening events that could have speeded up that demise."
Neither Hofman nor the district attorney would comment on whether they are looking into the possibility of suicide or euthanasia — both of which are considered grave sins by the Catholic Church.
Hofman said he is conducting toxicology tests on fluid and tissue that his office took from Bevilacqua's body after it had already been embalmed but before it was entombed.
He said he believes he has enough material for an examination, despite the embalming, and hopes to issue a cause of death by the end of the month.
"The most likely cause of death is death due to natural causes," the coroner said. "Those illnesses were very well-documented by his private physician."
Just before Bevilacqua died, a Philadelphia judge ruled him competent to testify at the child endangerment trial next month of Monsignor William Lynn, who is accused of quietly shuffling priests suspected of molesting children to unwitting parishes while he was a high-ranking archdiocesan official from 1992 to 2004.
In a grand jury report on the case last year, prosecutors accused Bevilacqua himself of presiding over the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. But he was not charged with a crime.
Ferman said she learned about the cardinal's death on the news and was surprised her office hadn't been notified, given that he died in her county.
The timing "struck many of us as odd, as peculiar," the district attorney said. She said she suggested the coroner investigate "so we could hopefully put to bed any rumors and speculation."
Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said a representative of the coroner's office had released the cardinal's body to a funeral home shortly after his death. The day after Bevilacqua died, Farrell said, the coroner's office contacted the funeral home and asked for the body.
"It is our understanding that someone who is a public figure — and certainly Cardinal Bevilacqua was a public figure — that it's not out of the question that tests would be done just so that the record is completely clear," she said.
"We understand that law enforcement and civil agencies have their role and responsibilities. We do hope that this can be concluded quickly."
One churchgoer Friday at Philadelphia's Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul said there was nothing surprising to her about the timing of Bevilacqua's death.
"The man was frail, and he was under stress, and they're surprised?" Patricia Janoski said. "He was ill for a long time, and he probably just gave up."
Associated Press writers Matt Moore and JoAnn Loviglio contributed to this report.