Bevilacqua, ruled competent to testify, faces questions

Rev. Anthony Bevilacqua. (File photo)
Rev. Anthony Bevilacqua. (File photo)
Posted: November 28, 2011

In a historic but sealed hearing Monday, a judge declared Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua competent and let prosecutors begin asking him what he knew and what he did about priests who sexually abused children while he led the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

For almost three hours, Bevilacqua fielded questions from an assistant district attorney, a defense lawyer, and the judge in a large conference room at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where the 88-year-old prelate has lived since retiring in 2003.

The hearing was closed, and the transcript may never be public.

According to one person briefed on the hearing, many of Bevilacqua's answers mirrored responses he gave eight years ago to a Philadelphia grand jury examining clergy sex abuse: He said he either didn't know or didn't recall the details of many cases or how the archdiocese responded to allegations.

Several times Monday, Bevilacqua answered questions by noting that investigating abuse claims was the responsibility of the archdiocese's secretary for clergy, said the person, who asked not to be identified in discussing the closed hearing.

Prosecutors had called the cardinal as a witness in their case against his former secretary for clergy, Msgr. William J. Lynn, who is charged with endangerment and conspiracy. He allegedly placed two abusive priests in assignments that gave them access to children. Prosecutors say those priests assaulted two boys in the 1990s.

Lynn has pleaded not guilty and, through his attorneys, denied any wrongdoing.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina halted Monday's hearing when it became clear the cardinal was tiring, the person said. Bevilacqua will resume testifying Tuesday morning.

Bevilacqua led the archdiocese from 1988 to 2003. In recent years, he has faded from public view. Lawyers say he suffers from dementia, cancer, and other ailments.

The cardinal emerged as a central witness in the case this year against Lynn and four other men. Prosecutors have wanted to question Bevilacqua, who has not been charged, to bolster their contention that Lynn's actions reflected a broader practice by archdiocesan leaders of hiding or protecting sexually abusive priests.

They sought a videotaped deposition now in case Bevilacqua could not testify during the trial in March.

The deposition began Monday morning after Sarmina, ending months of uncertainty, asked Bevilacqua a few questions and ruled that the cardinal was competent to take the witness stand.

Prosecutors had asked for a hearing in open court, but the judge approved a request from Bevilacqua's lawyer, Brian McMonagle, that he be allowed to testify privately at the seminary. Sarmina also has barred lawyers and defendants from publicly discussing the case.

Lynn attended the hearing, as did the Rev. James J. Brennan and former priest Edward V. Avery, both accused of molesting boys in the 1990s, according to the person briefed on the proceeding.

At least four assistant district attorneys attended the hearing. One, Jacqueline Coelho, questioned the cardinal for about two hours, the person said. At times, Sarmina interceded with questions of her own for Bevilacqua. The testimony ended with less than an hour of questions from one of Lynn's lawyers, Thomas Bergstrom.

The person briefed on the hearing said the cardinal at times appeared to be confused or struggled to recall details. "Legitimately," the person said, "he doesn't have a memory."

Bevilacqua has testified on the topic before. Starting in June 2003, the year he retired, the cardinal appeared 10 times before a Philadelphia grand jury examining clergy sex abuse. During that testimony, he often deflected questions about specific cases of abuse or said he did not recall details.

Lynn testified before that grand jury as well but was not charged.

He and four others were arrested last February after a new grand jury investigation. Lynn's lawyers have maintained that the charges are misguided because he did not have the authority to assign priests.

Bevilacqua's testimony will remain sealed at least until Lynn's trial and released only if prosecutors or defense lawyers introduce it to jurors.

Also scheduled to be tried are the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero, a former Catholic-school teacher. Like Avery and Brennan, they face charges of child sex abuse.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin

at 215-854-4774, jmartin@phillynews.com,

or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Joshua Fernandez contributed

to this article.

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