Monica Yant Kinney: Ailing cardinal has a duty to testify if he is able

Posted: August 07, 2011

On Pages 115-117 of the 2011 grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, citizen jurors described the dilemma of whether to recommend criminal charges against former Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

After enduring months of distressing testimony, they had "no doubt" Bevilacqua endangered children with his "knowing and deliberate actions." But they could not prove the cardinal complicit in the specific abuse cases before them.

And then there was the awkward matter of Bevilacqua's health.

The cardinal had been subpoenaed to testify before a previous grand jury in 2003 and 2004. He was 80 at the time, and, based on 1,200 pages of oratory (see philly.com/testimony), sharp and in fighting form.

But the grand jury that met in 2010 and early 2011 wasn't blessed with Bevilacqua's presence. His longtime attorney, William Sasso, told jurors the 88-year-old cleric suffers from prostate cancer and dementia. He required "24/7" nursing care, failed to recognize friends, and rarely left his seminary home.

Bevilacqua's doctors, Sasso relayed, advised against even mentioning the existence of a second grand jury; requiring a man so infirm to testify would prove "extremely traumatic."

The grand jurors acknowledged they were "not entirely sure what to believe" about Bevilacqua's condition in 2011.

But, "based on these issues relating to the evidence and the cardinal's health, we have reluctantly decided not to recommend charges against the former archbishop."

A case of conspiracy

Bevilacqua escaped scrutiny but remains a potential material witness in the criminal case against Msgr. William Lynn, his trusted secretary for clergy.

Lynn is the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic cleric ensnared in the sex scandal and the only church official charged with shuffling pedophile priests to unsuspecting parishes. He faces charges of child endangerment and conspiracy.

Lynn's case concerns the alleged sexual assault of two boys in the late 1990s, one of whom claims to have been passed around by two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher.

The allegations are not trifling; nor is the impact Bevilacqua could have on the trial, slated to begin early next year.

But, given reports of the cardinal's condition, prosecutors want a judge to order him to testify on video "before his health and memory deteriorate further and he becomes unavailable."

Their request enraged some Catholics and set off an unseemly discussion about how incapacitated is too incapacitated when justice - both for criminal defendants and haunted abuse victims - is at stake.

Burden of proof

In a case about the corruption of blind faith, the public cannot take a lawyer's word that Bevilacqua is unfit to testify. Besides, there's the matter of a curious inconsistency in Sasso's previous statements.

In January, he told the grand jury he had not seen Bevilacqua in public in three years. As it turns out, Sasso and the cardinal attended a La Salle University gala in March 2009. Both men appeared separately in photographs accompanying a society-page article in the now-defunct Bulletin. In one picture, a robust-looking Bevilacqua blesses a guest.

Told of the photographs, Sasso responded with an e-mail:

" . . . With your reminder, I did recall seeing him at Bud Hanson's event," a reference to the La Salle gala.

No one at the archdiocese would deign to discuss anything about Bevilacqua.

By cloaking the cardinal's condition in mystery, the church created more drama in a case already painfully uncomfortable for all parties.

Cancer and dementia could have ravaged Bevilacqua since 2009. Caregivers know how rapidly a loved one can suddenly decline. The judge can require proof of the cardinal's mental state and still treat him with dignity, as she intends at a Sept. 12 competency hearing.

If Bevilacqua is ill but lucid, he has a moral and legal obligation to testify and tell the truth.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

 

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