Fighting the Church Scandal
By Christopher K. Hepp, Maria Panaritis and David O'Reilly
July 28, 2002
Long before the nation's Catholic bishops met last month to adopt a national "zero-tolerance" policy against sexually abusive priests, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua argued for just such a standard.
"I think there should be a presumption that if a priest is found guilty of child abuse he will never be reassigned to work as a priest," he told a 1993 meeting of U.S. bishops.
Yet not until earlier this year, amid the growing national scandal, did Cardinal Bevilacqua formally adopt that tough standard for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Before that, he reserved the right to reassign an abusive priest to a ministry that did not involve children - and to keep such cases out of public view.
That dichotomy is emblematic of the cardinal's record on sexual abuse by priests - a record that takes on new importance as area Catholics wait to see how he implements the changes mandated last month by the nation's bishops.
Over 19 years as leader of two Roman Catholic dioceses, Cardinal Bevilacqua has been, philosophically and intellectually, ahead of many of his fellow bishops, advocating from early on firm policies to deal with abuse.
Yet he has avoided subjecting his actions and the behavior of his priests to public scrutiny, making it difficult to assess the true extent of priest abuse here.
For instance, while he disclosed on Feb. 22 that the Philadelphia Archdiocese had "credible evidence" that 35 priests, most now dead or retired, had abused about 50 minors since 1952, he has refused to disclose the priests' names to parishioners or the public, saying that could be hurtful to victims. He said the church would comply with prosecutors' request for the names; the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has nonetheless launched a grand-jury investigation.
Cardinal Bevilacqua has been swift to suspend and investigate accused priests but unwilling to alert law enforcement when not bound by law to do so.
He has offered counseling to victims, who report quick and professional response from his aides. Yet those who have sued the archdiocese have found it to be a cruel adversary. And the cardinal says he never met with an abuse victim until the bishops' conference last month.
He has faced no onslaught of lawsuits, and no evidence has emerged that predator priests were shuttled from parish to parish here, as happened in Boston and a few other dioceses. He says that most of the abuse was years ago and that no guilty priest remains in ministry in the five-county archdiocese.
But if the absence of wholesale litigation in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (where he ran the diocese before moving to Philadelphia in 1988) is an indicator of well-run dioceses under Cardinal Bevilacqua, it is hard to get a full picture. Though he has answered some questions from the media about the scandal, what is known of his record comes largely from his public actions as church leader, his handling of the few incidents to surface on his watch, and his own word.
Old school, traditionalist, orthodox: That is how those who know him or who study the church hierarchy describe him.
A canon lawyer as well as a civil lawyer, Cardinal Bevilacqua, 79, has taken uncompromising, sometimes unpopular, stands.
He has been an outspoken foe of legalized abortion. He has barred gays from studying for the priesthood here. Women priests? "Not in a million years," the cardinal has said.
He expects his priests to show the same loyalty to church tenets such as celibacy.
"Clerical discipline holds a very high value for him," said John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. "That a priest would break his vows, let alone abuse a minor, is deeply scandalizing to him."
By the cardinal's own account, his views have evolved, beginning with a belief - once held by many bishops and doctors alike - that priests who abused could be rehabilitated and returned to ministry.
A turning point came in 1984, when a Louisiana priest admitted molesting dozens of children and was imprisoned. Cardinal Bevilacqua was then bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese.
"At the time, there was still confusion and questions about the nature of the problem, as well as about the psyche and disorder of the priest who committed such abuse," the cardinal recently told the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Standard and Times.
Recognizing this, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy, pulled together a report on the problem. Though the effort was not formally sanctioned by the U.S. bishops' conference, its supporters included then-Bishop Bevilacqua, whom Father Doyle described recently as "a very crucial backer" and adviser.
The report, written by Father Doyle along with a Catholic psychiatrist and a criminal lawyer, called for national standards and a national intervention-team to deal with reports of abuse by priests. Father Doyle, who has since testified on behalf of victims suing the church, credits Cardinal Bevilacqua with being "ahead of the curve."
"From the very beginning of this," Father Doyle said, "if he had been in a stronger leadership position, I think things might have been different."
The Rev. Richard Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Diocese, said Bishop Bevilacqua established an unwritten policy there in 1985. It followed guidelines set out by the staff of the bishops' conference: swiftly investigate the allegation and remove the priest from ministry; get him evaluated and treated; offer support to victims; comply with obligations of civil law.
A priest who was treated and deemed to be cured could return to "restricted ministry," away from minors.
"There wasn't too much written down," said William Kraft, a Carlow College psychology professor who help review the Pittsburgh Diocese policy in 1992. "It was pretty much left up to the bishop and his administration."
When Bishop Bevilacqua was transferred to Philadelphia in 1988, he established a similar unwritten policy here.
A written policy was not set down until 1993, with this lawyerly caveat: "This policy is not intended... to obligate the Archdiocese to act in any time or manner, or establish any responsibility or liability of the Archdiocese."
While Cardinal Bevilacqua was bishop of Pittsburgh, a scandal was brewing undetected.
The Revs. Robert Wolk and Richard F. Zula molested two brothers from 1981 until 1987. It began when the boys were 12 and ended when one victim confided in a college counselor - who alerted the diocese. Bishop Bevilacqua's personnel chief swiftly removed the priests from ministry and placed them in treatment, along with the Rev. Francis Pucci, a third priest linked to the case.
Under state law at the time, the diocese did not have to tell authorities - and it did not. A diocesan spokesman said later that the victims' parents had asked that police not be notified.
That did not sit well with prosecutors, when, a year later, the victims' family reported the abuse to them.
"The diocese has a moral obligation to call in a law-enforcement agency instead of handling it in-house," then-Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Colville said at the time.
Fathers Wolk and Zula were eventually convicted and jailed.
It was in Pittsburgh, too, that Bishop Bevilacqua accepted the transfer of the Rev. John P. Connor, a Camden County priest who had spent eight months in psychiatric treatment after he admitted molesting a 14-year-old boy in 1984.
Father Connor was made a hospital chaplain in Pittsburgh. Like Bishop Bevilacqua, he moved to the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 1988 - and served as a parish assistant in Conshohocken, with unrestricted access to children. In 1993, he was transferred to a hospital chaplaincy in Bridgeton, N.J.
Asked recently whether he knew of Father Connor's history when he assigned him to posts in Pittsburgh and later in Conshohocken, Cardinal Bevilacqua said: "My memory is very vague on it." He recalled being told by Camden's late bishop, George Guilfoyle, that Father Connor was a fine priest who had been in an alcohol-related incident. The bishop "hinted" that the incident was sexual, the cardinal said.
He said he did not know it involved a minor until April, when an Inquirer article described Father Connor's history.
Within a year of being installed as Philadelphia archbishop in 1988, Cardinal Bevilacqua created the post of Secretary of the Clergy to oversee priests and began an unwritten policy similar to Pittsburgh's for handling abuse allegations.
He also found himself still dealing with events from his previous watch.
In 1988, the same year Fathers Wolk and Zula were criminally charged, former altar boy Timothy Bendig sued the Pittsburgh diocese, contending that he had been abused by ex-priest Anthony Cipolla from 1982 to 1987 - while Cardinal Bevilacqua was bishop there. Bishop Bevilacqua was named as a defendant.
The suit accused Bishop Bevilacqua's Pittsburgh predecessor, the late Bishop Vincent Leonard, of moving Father Cipolla to Bendig's parish soon after another boy dropped criminal charges against Father Cipolla in 1978.
In five years of litigation that included two dozen depositions, no evidence emerged suggesting that Cardinal Bevilacqua knew of the abuse when it happened or protected Father Cipolla. Bendig's attorneys tried to have the cardinal questioned under oath, but church lawyers fended off that effort.
In 1993, Bendig's attorneys tried again, serving the cardinal with a trial subpoena while he was in Pittsburgh for a church event. A week later, the case was settled for a confidential sum.
Meanwhile, the 1993 sentencing of an ex-priest in Fall River, Mass., for molesting 28 children was causing bishops across the nation to rethink a belief that abusers could be treated and returned to duty.
"It was a gradual evolution," Cardinal Bevilacqua said in a recent interview.
In 1993, the Philadelphia Archdiocese finally put its own policy in writing. Among the cases that have surfaced since then:
The Rev. Michael Swierzy was quickly removed in 1997 from a Lower Makefield, Bucks County, parish when he was accused of improper behavior with a teenage boy. The boy's family went to police; Father Swierzy later pleaded guilty to a morals charge and was put on probation.
In 1998, Joseph Quarles, now 52, contacted the archdiocese to say that he had been molested decades earlier by a priest who was still assigned to a parish. The priest, the Rev. Francis Rogers, then 79, was moved to a retirement home for priests.
Amid this year's scandal, Cardinal Bevilacqua acted the same day that Michael Quay of Phoenixville reported having been abused in the 1970s by the Rev. Craig F. Brugger. Father Brugger's exit from his most recent post, as a pastor in Olney, was a rare instance of the church announcing the reasons for a priest's removal.
The archdiocese has been quick to offer victims help with counseling and other needs. It paid for Quarles' therapy without prompting from him, Quarles said.
Quay praised the archdiocesan staff's response to his revelation of abuse. "They were very understanding, and very professional," he said.
When victims sue, though, the archdiocese has insisted on secret settlements, has countersued one victim's parents, and has demanded that another's name be disclosed in court.
Cardinal Bevilacqua has said court strategy is dictated by church lawyers and, in some cases, by insurers. Last month, he would not rule out taking tough steps in future suits: "We don't want any kind of unfair means used, but we have to defend ourselves as best as possible."
The archdiocese's handling of future allegations will be guided in part by what the bishops decided in Dallas last month.
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People calls for some steps that Cardinal Bevilacqua has not taken before - such as reporting all cases to authorities and creating a board that includes lay members to review allegations.
That board will be separate from a lay panel the cardinal created in April to review abuse issues, and in addition to an ad-hoc administrative panel of archdiocesan officials (chaired by the cardinal) formed to implement the Dallas charter.
The archdiocese is catching up: a recent survey found that many dioceses have had review boards in place since at least 1995.
Nothing in the new policy assures compliance. Bishops have some autonomy, and as Cardinal Bevilacqua has said, his own actions will still be the key.
"There is a very immediate and obvious accountability" for bishops, he said after returning from Texas, "and that is to the people. If I do not comply with the charter, the people have a right to say you promised and you broke your promise."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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