Montgomery County district attorney explains her calling for Bevilacqua exam

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman: "I just thought that someone should make sure that nothing happened that was inappropriate."
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman: "I just thought that someone should make sure that nothing happened that was inappropriate." (File photo)
Posted: February 11, 2012

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman asked the county coroner to examine the body of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua last week because the timing of the 88-year-old prelate's death struck her as "peculiar," she said Friday.

Ferman acknowledged that she enlisted county Coroner Walter I. Hofman because the cardinal died one day after a Philadelphia judge said Bevilacqua could be called to testify at the child sex-abuse and endangerment trial of three current and former priests.

"I had the same reaction that many people had and that many people communicated with me," Ferman told reporters at a news conference in Norristown. "It struck many of us as odd, as peculiar, that the cardinal passed away so suddenly after the court ruling. . . . I just thought that someone should make sure that nothing happened that was inappropriate."

Ferman said she had no information to suggest that the cardinal was the victim of foul play or an unnatural death. She said her office had not opened an investigation.

"This death is not the subject of a criminal inquiry," she said. "It is simply being examined by the coroner to determine what the cause of death is."

Ferman spoke a day after Hofman told The Inquirer that prosecutors had asked him to examine the body "to make sure there were no intervening events that could have speeded up" the cardinal's death.

Bevilacqua died shortly after 9 p.m. Jan. 31 at his residence at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, just outside the city limits. He had been in declining health since his 2003 retirement as the leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Lawyers and church officials said he suffered from cancer, dementia, and other ailments.

Hoffman has deferred declaring a cause of death. He said he did not conduct a full autopsy, but declined to elaborate.

In an interview Friday, Hofman said he saw no marks on the cardinal's body or other evidence to suggest anything but a natural death. The coroner said he would review the cardinal's medical records and toxicology test results to see if Bevilacqua had unusually high or unexplained amounts of prescription medication or other chemicals in his blood.

Hofman said he expected to publicly release those results after he gets them, possibly this month.

Autopsies and other examinations of the dead are standard in homicides or when the decedent is young, seemingly healthy, or dies in unexplained circumstances. Hofman estimated that his office has been notified in about 60 percent of the deaths in Montgomery County each year.

Ferman said she had no authority over the coroner, who is independently elected, and that she only "suggested" the examination. She said her office rarely acknowledged its role in such reviews, partly to avoid stirring rumors.

But, acknowledging the throng of reporters and camera crews who crowded into a conference room Friday, she said she felt she had to publicly address the issue.

"If I were to remain silent on what's going on right now, I think I would actually generate speculation, which is not appropriate," Ferman said.

One of Bevilacqua's top aides, Msgr. William J. Lynn, faces trial in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court next month on child-endangerment charges, having allegedly recommended sexually abusive priests for assignments that gave them access to minors. As secretary for clergy, Lynn was responsible for reviewing abuse allegations and recommending treatment or placements for accused priests.

Bevilacqua was not charged in the case, but had become a central witness.

In November, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina declared the cardinal competent and let prosecutors from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office question him during a closed hearing at the seminary. The assistant district attorneys cited Bevilacqua's frail health as one reason they wanted to preserve his testimony on videotape before the trial.

Acting on a request from defense attorneys, Sarmina last week reiterated her ruling that Bevilacqua was competent and could still be called to the witness stand at trial. He died the next night.

Ferman said Philadelphia prosecutors did not contact her or anyone in her office about Bevilacqua's death or ask her to intervene.

After the cardinal died, his body was transferred to Donohue Funeral Home in Upper Darby. Hofman examined it the next day, Feb. 1, at his Norristown office.

The body was already embalmed, but Hofman said embalming would not interfere with his exam. The body was returned to the funeral home that day.

Bevilacqua was entombed Tuesday in a crypt at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774, jmartin@phillynews.com,

or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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