Hopes Dim for Cardinal Bevilacqua's Resurrection

By Ralph Cipriano
Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog
May 4, 2012

One of the featured coming attractions of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial was the hope of seeing Cardinal Bevilacqua come back from the dead to testify in a videotaped deposition.

On Nov. 29, 2011, prosecutors, defense lawyers and Judge M. Teresa Sarmina all made the trek out to the retired cardinal's residence on the grounds of the Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, so they could depose the 88-year-old Bevilacqua. The deposition went on for two days and covered at least four hours of videotape.

Ever since Bevilacqua died on Jan. 31, a day after Judge Sarmina had ruled him competent to testify as a witness, speculation has been that the prosecution would use the videotape at trial.

But in court this week, Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho told the judge that she doesn't expect that the Commonwealth will play the videotape during the trial, which just wrapped up its sixth week of testimony.

That declaration was prompted by a request from William J. Brennan, the lawyer for Father James J. Brennan, one of two defendants in the case. The defense attorney asked the judge if he could watch a segment of the tape where he questioned Bevilacqua, to figure out whether he wanted to use it as evidence in Father Brennan's defense.

Brennan was trying to broker a deal where he could sit in Coelho's office and view the tape, but Judge Sarmina wasn't buying it. The judge told Brennan that in her view the videotape belonged to the prosecution, since they had paid for it, and had gotten permission from the seminary to film there. The judge also mentioned that the prosecution made the motion after Bevilacqua's death to preserve the tape as evidence.

"It's not their property, it's evidence in a criminal trial," Brennan argued. The defense lawyer said he had the right to use the video if he thought it would help Father Brennan's defense. But when the judge raised objections to Brennan even viewing a portion of the tape, the defense lawyer protested that the judge had "some paranoid idea" that he was going to put the video on youtube.

There's a long-running gag order in the case that prevents lawyers on both sides from talking to the press. Of all the lawyers in the case, Brennan has bristled the most in court whenever the subject of the gag order has come up.

But on Tuesday, Brennan appeared to give up. After the judge voiced her objections to the defense lawyer even viewing the tape, Brennan sat down, threw up his arms, and said, "Forget it," and, "Do whatever you want, Judge."

What happened during the videotaped deposition is the source of some news and much gossip. In a court filing in December, lawyers for Msgr. William J. Lynn described the cardinal as frail, forgetful, as well as bewildered and struggling "to the point of tears."

"For the most part," Lynn's lawyers wrote, the cardinal's "memory bank was an empty room."

The cardinal's lawyers had said that His Eminence suffered from dementia and prostate cancer, and he had trouble recognizing old acquaintances. But Bevilacqua's mental acuity has been a subject of debate for years.

Back in 2005, after a grand jury issued a report that blasted Bevilacqua for orchestrating a coverup that successfully kept abuser priests out of jail, the archdiocese claimed that the grand jury tried to "bully and intimidate" the cardinal. Bevilacqua, then 80, was called to testify before the grand jury on 10 separate days, and faced "hostile and unnecessarily combative" interrogation from two and three prosecutors at a time, lawyers for the archdiocese charged.

In response, then District Attorney Lynne Abraham said, "Any persistence in the questioning of Cardinal Bevilacqua may have resulted in part from his evasiveness and claimed forgetfulness on the witness stand."

Bevilacqua's grand jury performance prompted comparisons to Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, the late Mafia boss known as the "Oddfather." When a federal court was debating Gigante's competency to stand trial on racketeering charges, the Chin was seen wandering the streets in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, and mumbling to himself.

The last word on the subject came from Montgomery County Coroner Walter I. Hoffman, who said in March that Bevilacqua definitely suffered from dementia. "We do know it was fairly advanced," Hoffman told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I have a copy of a CAT scan that showed evidence of brain atrophy, the brain shrinking away."

Sadly, jurors and courtroom spectators won't get the chance to watch the tape, and form their own opinions.


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