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  The Two Sides of Cardinal Bevilacqua

Friends cite his compassion; others say his views were twisted by his high office.


By Melissa Dribben
Philadelphia Inquirer
September 25, 2005

It has been a precipitous fall from grace.

Two years after retiring as the reigning prelate in one of the most powerful religious institutions in the nation, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua now finds himself accused of sheltering evil by protecting sexual deviates who preyed on children.

Bevilacqua, who devoted his life to moral leadership, guided by the strictest Catholic tenets, is facing, at the age of 82, a scandal of unthinkable proportions. And with it, the likelihood that his scarlet-robed legacy will be stained by allegations of what he did and did not do.

Two weeks ago, he made one of the public appearances that have been increasingly rare.

On Sept. 11, he attended the dedication of a newly renovated $6 million library complex at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, where he now resides. A photograph from the event that appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times shows the cardinal white-haired and slightly stooped in his skullcap and robes, standing in the stacks, surrounded by family members and holding an open book.

Surely, this is the kind of image that Bevilacqua would prefer to leave with the public. And it is an accurate one - but incomplete.

As time goes by, and the scandal grows over the church's cover-up of child sexual abuse by clergy, it becomes harder and harder to reconcile this man of faith and intellect, capable of warmth and compassion, with the imperious institutional loyalist who, a grand jury says, "looked to legalisms at the expense of decency."

An archdiocese spokeswoman said Bevilacqua is unavailable for interviews.

His friends and associates describe him as principled and down-to-earth.

"I'll never forget the first time I met him," recalled Bill Devlin, an evangelist leader. "He came out, and I said, 'Cardinal, it's so great to meet you!' And he said, 'Look, I'm Tony, Tony Bevilacqua.'"

But others, even his admirers, say that as he rose through the Catholic hierarchy, the glorified trappings of his office may have distorted his views.

"As these men move higher and higher in the circles of power, they live in a rarefied world and lose touch with real people and the real problems they have," said Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who has known Bevilacqua since the 1970s.

Doyle was one of the earliest whistle-blowers to speak out against pervasive sexual abuse in the church. When they were younger, he often turned to Bevilacqua for advice. "I remember his ability to see problems and cut through to the core."

In the mid-1980s, Doyle wrote an extensive report on predator priests and was troubled by the church's lack of response. So he met with Bevilacqua, then bishop of Pittsburgh.

"He was the guy to go to when I was disheartened," Doyle said. "He encouraged me not to give up."

Doyle said, "Deep down inside, I believe Tony is a good man," but "something got lost. He wasn't raised to be a prince, but the hierarchy creates its own aristocracy. They walk around in medieval robes and sit on thrones." With regard to the cardinal's dealing with sex abuse, Doyle faults him for choosing businessmen rather than compassionate priests.

"His loyalty to the church was the very thing that caused him to forget the people he was there to serve."

Doyle added that he hoped Bevilacqua would accept culpability: "That he knows in his heart, whether he meant to or not, that he turned his back on those who were ravaged."

Bevilacqua grew up poor, the ninth of 11 children born to Italian immigrants, in Queens, N.Y. (His father was a mason, but couldn't find work in his trade, so he worked in a patchwork of jobs.) Inspired by a priest who was a German immigrant, Bevilacqua went on to care deeply about immigrant needs and rights.

In the 1970s in Brooklyn, Bevilacqua was asked to start an immigration and refugee office, and, shortly after, he decided to get a civil law degree because it would make him more "effective" in dealing with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This concern for the disenfranchised led him to press Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge in 1998 to fund food stamps for legal immigrants who had been excluded by federal welfare reforms. He also challenged businesses to help welfare recipients who needed to work 20 hours a week to retain benefits. Under his watch, the archdiocese also created an office for community development to help blighted neighborhoods.

But there was a disconnect between Bevilacqua's history of caring for the poor and his cold detachment when he closed more than a dozen inner-city churches and parish schools in the 1990s.

His critics were especially bitter that while he was depriving small ethnic communities of their neighborhood churches to save money, he was indulging his growing taste for luxury and building a lavish, state-of-the-art media room in the archdiocese headquarters.

On questions of morality, Bevilacqua was as outspoken as he was unyielding. He testified before Philadelphia City Council, arguing forcefully against offering benefits to same-sex couples.

He was similarly impassioned in his belief that gay men are unfit to be priests, human-embryo research is immoral, and the death penalty, abortion and gambling are indefensible.

Those close to him see a gentle man. His niece, Mary Jo Courtney, says he has "a special place" in her heart.

Courtney, an educator in Stonington, Conn., is the daughter of Bevilacqua's elder brother, Rocco, 86. Her uncle, she said, delivered moving eulogies for her husband and three children, who died 15 years ago in "a tragedy" that she declined to discuss, and later, when her sister died of cancer.

"He gave such words of warmth and comfort and sincerity," she said. "In those two presentations as a priest, he was very beautiful."

Courtney said she wasn't aware of last week's withering grand jury findings against him - findings that say he excused and enabled the abuse of hundreds of children in a way that was "at least as immoral as the abuse itself."

The last time she saw the cardinal, she said, was at his retirement party.

Bill Devlin, who helped arrange that party, said that when he first proposed it, Bevilacqua's associates told him the cardinal was not interested. "They said he doesn't like to bring attention to himself," Devlin recalled. But Devlin insisted, and arranged to have U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia attend.

"When I called back and said, 'Scalia is going to give the keynote address,' they told me, 'The cardinal will be there!' "

Among parishioners, Bevilacqua could be extremely gracious. Rocco Palmo, a 22-year-old free-lance writer, said that from the time he was a child, he would try to attend Mass so that he could get close to the man he admired. They struck up a friendship and exchanged nearly 100 notes over the years.

When Palmo was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, the cardinal helped him get into an oversubscribed course taught by John DiIulio.

Msgr. Louis D'Addezio called Bevilacqua "our shepherd, the man I loved and served." As director of special projects for the archdiocese, D'Addezio helped arrange events, pilgrimages and parties.

"When he became a cardinal, I was in charge of the group that went to Rome. There were 800 of us." After the ceremony, the group gathered for a photograph.

"The cardinal came out, stood in front of the gang, took his red biretta and threw it in the air. The people went wild."

Several years ago, Bevilacqua asked D'Addezio whether he could do anything to thank him for all his hard work. So D'Addezio asked whether the cardinal would visit his elderly parents in Downingtown. Bevilacqua did. "And when they moved into a nursing home, they brought along the picture of him posing with them," D'Addezio said.

Cathy Rossi, who was the archdiocese's spokeswoman for seven years, said that until the sexual-abuse scandal broke, "the cardinal almost never said no when a reporter asked to speak to him." He believed, she said, that by speaking publicly he could spread the word of God.

Rossi said she felt honored to work with Bevilacqua.

"I think it's lonely at the top," she said. "They say that for a reason. But I miss working for him. I feel such love for him. When I think about him, I almost want to cry. He cared. I know he cared."

Some of Bevilacqua's isolation was unnecessary, said Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers.

"He pushed himself too far away," she said. "He created a bureaucracy that was never there before. That impedes a good working relationship." Every request, she said, would have to go through level after level of intermediaries, none of whom could make a decision without the cardinal's consent.

And indeed, the grand jury found that Bevilacqua, and Cardinal John Krol before him, were "personally informed of almost all of the allegations" and "hid the priests' crimes from parishioners, police, and the general public."

Schwartz first met Bevilacqua in February 1988, when the teachers were preparing for contract negotiations. The conversation was amiable. "But then three-quarters of the way through, I started to talk about what the teachers needed," she said. "There was a decided change.

"I remember him saying, 'We'll make sure they have what they need,' and I said, 'That's not for you to determine.' His eyes drilled a hole in my head and I thought, 'Uh-oh. Guess he didn't like that one.' "

Years later, after a bitter teachers' strike, Bevilacqua barred Schwartz from setting foot inside the archdiocese building for a year.

"He has a public persona that is quite different from his private one," she said. "He was a very outgoing, huggy-bear, kissy-face kind of person with people, but only people who were not going to challenge him."

Ever since the grand jury began questioning him, Bevilacqua's health has declined, and he has become withdrawn.

He dines alone in his suite of rooms and spends much of his time in a small chapel in prayer.

"In the remaining days I have left," he told Bill Devlin, "I want to spend time with the Lord."

[Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com]

 
 

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