Monica Yant Kinney: Cardinal's absurdist biblical debate before a grand jury

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File Photograph (Inquirer archives)
Posted: July 27, 2011

On the seventh day, God rested, exhausted from a week creating heaven, earth, man, and beast.

As for Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua? The 80-year-old former spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia spent his seventh day of grand jury testimony engaging in an absurdist biblical debate.

At issue was Bevilacqua's defense of the indefensible. For 20 years, church leaders had allowed the Rev. Nicholas Cudemo to remain in ministry amid cries he was raping 10-year-old girls and luring high school students into sexual affairs.

Near day's end, prosecutor William Spade told Bevilacqua that the grand jurors remained convinced that "the rights and protection of the children of the archdiocese are taken less seriously than the rights and protection of the priests."

Bevilacqua insisted he needed "evidence in order to ask someone to step down."

And not just any evidence. Anonymous reports, Bevilacqua said, had "no value at all to me."

"Secondhand information," he added, lacked credibility.

That puzzled the jurors, who then asked Bevilacqua if he believed in the Gospels.

"Yes," assured the cardinal.

"But," Spade pressed, "it's the jurors' understanding that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written many years after the actual events," by those not present at the time.

"Yes," Bevilacqua agreed.

So, using the cleric's own logic, wouldn't that make the Gospels "secondhand information"?

Ten days of testimony

That testy exchange is but one of many jumping off 1,200-plus pages of secret testimony introduced in the criminal case against Bevilacqua's trusted secretary for clergy, Msgr. William Lynn.

Bevilacqua testified for 10 days over eight months in 2003 and 2004 about what he knew and what Lynn did or did not do. The closed-door sessions proved relentless and, occasionally, surprising.

On the first day, June 26, 2003, Bevilacqua seemed shocked to learn that the archdiocese's now-infamous "secret archives" contained allegations against 120 priests.

"You said there were 120 different priests?" he repeated. "This is the first time I heard that number."

Though the sex-abuse saga exploded in 2002, Bevilacqua had felt no need to delve into the secret archives. He purposefully avoided TV, books, and newspaper reports.

"I've never read the Boston Globe," he declared to Deputy District Attorney Charles Gallagher.

"Not one article at all?"

"Not even one."

Later, Gallagher asked Bevilacqua if the abuse scandal represented "one of the greatest crises ever faced by the Catholic Church."

Hardly, the cardinal replied.

"There have been, I think, more severe crises in the history of the church than this one."

He's a believer

Early on, Bevilacqua explained clericalism as referring to priests who "think they are a very elitist group" deserving "special privileges and authority."

Simply, it's when priests "think that they are the whole church."

But Bevilacqua said clericalism wasn't widespread and didn't contribute to the victimization of children.

"I think it's an exaggeration," contended the man who, by position and tradition, is to this day referred to as "His Eminence."

If clericalism isn't to blame, how to explain the promotions Cudemo received amid reports of flaunting his sexual liaisons with teenagers?

Bevilacqua contended that he couldn't punish Cudemo, because the priest had "rights" and might "bring action" against the church.

Again and again, baffled grand jurors pressed the cardinal. If Bevilacqua believed the Gospels, why couldn't he believe a 15-year-old reporting that her best friend was the victim of sex crimes by a priest?

"You have to be a member of the faith . . . to understand what I'm about to say," he lectured. "All Scripture is revealed by God himself. . . . It has divine truth. We cannot take that and apply that to secondhand human witnesses."

Contact columnist Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670,

or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog



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