Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the former leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia who faced criticism for his handling of allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests, died Tuesday at the age of 88, the diocese said.
Cardinal Bevilacqua’s death came a day after a state judge reaffirmed he was legally competent to testify as a witness in a criminal trial of three priests charged in connection with alleged abuse of children during his tenure as archbishop from 1988 to 2003. Defense attorneys for the priests had argued Cardinal Bevilacqua wasn’t competent to testify because he was senile. He provided videotaped testimony in November that may be played at the trial, scheduled to start later this month. Cardinal Bevliacqua wasn’t charged with any wrongdoing in connection with the abuse allegations. On Wednesday, the cardinal’s lawyer wasn’t available to comment. A spokesman for the diocese said he couldn’t address abuse allegations because the judge in the coming trial has issued a gag order.
A spokesman for the archdiocese didn’t provide a cause of death. According to a 2011 court document, Cardinal Bevilacqua’s lawyer said he suffered from dementia and cancer. The diocese said in a statement that he died in his sleep at the Philadelphia seminary where he lived.
Cardinal Bevilacqua, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., led the nation’s sixth-largest Catholic diocese from 1988 to 2003. In a statement, the diocese highlighted his efforts to bring nonpracticing Catholics back to the church, and for speaking out against racism. He was ordained a priest in 1949, and he held various posts in the Brooklyn diocese before serving as bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1983 to 1987. He also had a law degree and taught immigration law from 1977 to 1980.
In 2002, a state court grand jury began an investigation into allegations of clergy sex abuse in the diocese amid rising allegations of priest abuse around the country.
The investigation resulted in a 2005 report outlining numerous cases of abuse allegations against Philadelphia area priests dating back several decades. The report said Cardinal Bevliacqua was aware that some priests in the diocese were engaged in “massive amounts of child molestations and sexual assaults” over many years. The report accused him of hiding the allegations from parishioners and police, and of taking steps to avoid any legal liability for him and the diocese.
At that time, however, prosecutors said they were powerless to bring any new criminal charges because the statutes of limitation had expired. Before the 2005 report came out, the grand jury did bring abuse charges against one priest, who pleaded guilty.
In 2011, Philadelphia prosecutors charged three priests and a lay teacher with rape, indecent assault and related charges, in connection with allegations they abused boys in the 1990s. The statutes of limitation for the cases brought last year hadn’t yet expired because they were referred by the church to the district attorney after the 2005 report was released.
Prosecutors also levied child-endangerment charges against Msgr. William Lynn, who served as secretary for clergy under Cardinal Bevilacqua, responsible for fielding abuse allegations. Msgr. Lynn, the highest-ranking church official to be charged criminally since abuse allegations exploded nationally a decade ago, was accused of transferring the priests to parishes despite prior allegations of abuse.
Msgr. Lynn and the other accused men have pleaded not guilty to the charges. A trial for Msgr. Lynn and two priests is due to start later this month; a separate trial will be held for another priest and the lay teacher.
The grand jury that recommended charges against Msgr. Lynn and the other men said in a 2011 report that it chose not to recommend charges against Cardinal Bevilacqua because the evidence didn’t establish that he was aware of all the information that Msgr. Lynn had received. But the report said Cardinal Bevilacqua endangered thousands of children during his tenure by failing to properly respond to abuse allegations.
Cardinal Bevliacqua’s successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired last year and was succeeded by Charles Chaput, former leader of Denver’s Catholic archdiocese.
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