PHILADELPHIA -- Church leaders called on parishioners yesterday to pray for the soul of retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who led them for more than 15 years but was also an uncharged central figure in a child sex-abuse case that involves the alleged shuffling of predator priests.
Bevilacqua, 88, died in his sleep at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood after battling dementia and an undisclosed form of cancer, according to archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell. 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. His death comes just days after lawyers battled in court over his competency as a potential witness in the upcoming trial of a longtime aide.
A native of Brooklyn, Bevilacqua was ordained a priest in 1949. He had also led the Pittsburgh archdiocese and served as auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn.
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 gay people 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," he used then-novel methods, such as a toll-free confession line, a live weekly radio call-in program and an online forum for posting questions to priests. Bevilacqua settled into retirement after turning 80 in 2003. The first grand jury began its work that year.
His successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired last year after the second grand jury report led to the charges against Msgr. William Lynn and four others, including three priests charged with rape.
Lynn was the first U.S. church official charged in the priest-abuse scandal for his administrative actions. His lawyers argue that he took orders from Bevilacqua.
Bevilacqua was 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 grand jury testimonies in 2003 and 2004.
He graduated from Cathedral College in 1943, then attended Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.