Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, whose 15 years as shepherd of the 1.5 million-member Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia was marked by celebration and crisis, died Jan. 31 at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, a suburb of Philadelphia. He was 88.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese confirmed the death and told the Associated Press that the cardinal had dementia and an undisclosed form of cancer.
Cardinal Bevilacqua, who retired in 2003, was emblematic of the church to which he had devoted himself since age 14: progressive on some social-justice issues, staunchly orthodox on matters of doctrine and sexuality, and unfailingly deferential to the will of Rome.
Perhaps the most joyous moment of his prelature came Oct. 1, 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized Mother Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia banking heiress who in 1891 founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Cardinal Bevilacqua had vigorously championed her cause.
Cardinal Bevilacqua’s tenure, though, was also a time of unprecedented contraction for the archdiocese.
After five years at the helm, he took up a thankless task that his predecessor, Cardinal John Krol, had put off: deciding the fate of many underused parishes and schools. He wound up closing 20 parishes, six high schools and 28 elementary schools, largely in poor city neighborhoods.
In decline since the 1970s, Mass attendance and priestly vocations continued slipping during his era — a trend afflicting many other dioceses.
His most agonizing period was surely the clergy sex-abuse crisis that erupted in 2002 and culminated three years later in a searing indictment of his leadership.
In September 2005, after a 40-month grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office issued a report excoriating cardinals Bevilacqua and Krol for systematically allowing hundreds of abuser priests to go unpunished and ignoring the victims.
The report named 63 priests working in the archdiocese who had abused children during the previous 50 years, and surmised there might have been 100 more whose crimes were concealed by murky record-keeping.
“Sexually abusive priests were left quietly in place or ‘recycled’ to unsuspecting new parishes — vastly expanding the number of children who were abused,” the 418-page report concluded.
Cardinal Bevilacqua did not respond publicly to the charges. His successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, called the report “very unfair” for not addressing abuse in other religious denominations and public institutions.
Acquaintances described Cardinal Bevilacqua, already suffering some depression after his retirement, as devastated by the report. He rarely appeared in public afterward and granted no interviews.
Just this week, a Common Pleas Court judge reaffirmed an earlier ruling that Cardinal Bevilacqua, although he was described as “moderately senile,” was legally competent to testify in the forthcoming trial of three priests accused of abuse.
Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua was born in Brooklyn on June 17, 1923. He was the ninth of 11 children of poor Italian immigrants.
He graduated from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y., before being ordained a priest in 1949. Mindful of his parents’ struggles, he devoted himself to the immigrant cause throughout his career, beginning in the ethnically diverse Diocese of Brooklyn.
He earned a doctoral degree in canon law from Gregorian University, Rome, in 1956, a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University in 1962 and a law degree in 1975 from St. John’s University law school in New York. While he was admitted to practice law in New York and Pennsylvania, he never argued in a court.
In 1976, he was named chancellor of the Brooklyn diocese. He was ordained as a bishop in 1980 and made auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn.
He remained chancellor of the diocese and director of its Migration and Refugee Office until 1983. As a cardinal, he would sit on the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People.
“We don’t help people because they are Catholic,” he often said. “We help them because we are Catholic.”
In 1983, John Paul II made him bishop of the 900,000-member Pittsburgh diocese.