Ronnie Polaneczky: Bevilacqua: Not a predator, but worse

Posted: February 02, 2012

NINE YEARS AGO, my husband took a photo of our daughter, when she was in kindergarten, with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

She'd just returned from an excursion to the Philadelphia Zoo, where she'd gotten her face painted like a koala bear's. Afterward, she and my husband hit the St. Pat's Day Parade, where Bevilacqua was working the crowds on that unseasonably warm day.

The cardinal graciously posed with my daughter for a picture, and it's a winner (that's it, to the right). She's leaning into him, and his arm is curled around her waist. His other arm rests atop her hand. Their smiles are wonderful - his is warm and kind; hers impy.

We gave a framed copy of the photo to my parents, who loved Bevilacqua. We placed another on our piano, with other family photos.

The photo captured a sweet moment that symbolized how the church can make us feel safe in a world that seems irrational and full of danger.

A few years later, the first Philadelphia grand-jury report was released, detailing years of sexual abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and Bevilacqua's central role in allowing it to persist.

I cried as I read the report. Then I removed the photo from the piano.

I was appalled that the grandfatherly prelate who'd been so kind to my daughter was also a bloodless lawyer willing to trade children's safety for the survival of his church.

But there it was, in a section titled "Overview of the Cover-Up by Archdiocesan Officials."

On page 35: Bevilacqua removed accused pedophile Pastor Nicholas Cudemo from St. Callistus parish only when victims threatened to sue both Bevilacqua and the Archdiocese. After the lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had lapsed, Bevilacqua allowed Cudemo to return to ministering.

On page 37: The cardinal had an aide tell accused predator Father Michael McCarthy that, despite the allegations against him, he could be appointed pastor at another parish after "an interval of time has passed." That new parish, according to the Cardinal's instructions, "would be distant from St. Kevin Parish so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract the attention of the complainant."

Farther down the same page was a name I knew well: Father Edward DePaoli, a resident priest in my childhood parish, who was convicted on child-pornography charges.

Afterward, when the Archdiocese was trying to decide where to assign DePaoli, Bevilacqua wrote: "For the present time it might be more advisable for him to return to the active ministry in another diocese," which would "put a sufficient period between the publicity and reinstatement in the active ministry of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia."

The grand jury's overview of the cover-up concluded with this withering assessment:

"The abuses that Cardinal Bevilacqua and his aides allowed children to suffer - the molestations, the rapes, the lifelong shame and despair - did not result from failures or lapses, except of the moral variety. They were made possible by purposeful decisions, carefully implemented policies, and calculated indifference."

The late Bevilacqua was not a monster the way his sheltered predators were. He was something worse: a man who put his career, ambition and the perks of his job before all else, including his duty to protect the most vulnerable members of his flock.

In the case of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, it has become pointless to ask, "How can an archdiocesan leader do such a thing?" Because the truth is, in a hierarchy where the sex-abuse cover-up has reached into the uppermost levels, no one is appointed a leader unless he can be counted on to do such a thing.

Terribly, Bevilacqua was one of those men. His wasn't a one-time failure of judgment with awful, but limited, consequences. It was cunning, ongoing and systemic, and it reverberated over years. The fallout is still with us.

Although death has spared Bevilacqua from the full earthly consequences of the cover-up he participated in, there is no escaping the higher authority he's now answering to.

One day, I hope to find enough charity in my heart to pray for his soul.

But I'll never find enough to put that photo back on the piano.


Email polaner@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Blog: www.philly.com/RonnieBlog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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