Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the former head of the Philadelphia archdiocese who was accused during his 15-year tenure of ignoring sexual abuse of children by hundreds of priests, has died. The diocese announced that Bevilacqua, 88, died in his sleep Tuesday night in his apartment at a seminary in a Philadelphia suburb.
Bevilacqua, known for his regular press-the-flesh visits to all 302 parishes in the archdiocese and for his strong stands against racism and anti-Semitism, was also sharply critical of homosexuals and refused for several years to close Catholic churches and schools to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
In a statement Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI praised Bevilacqua’s "longstanding commitment to social justice and pastoral care of immigrants and his expert contribution of the revision of the church’s law in the years following the Second Vatican Council."
Bevilacqua, the son of an Italian immigrant bricklayer in Brooklyn who spoke little English, championed the rights of immigrants. In 1998, he asked Pennsylvania’s governor to fund food stamps for the state’s legal immigrants. The following year, he urged local businesses to help find work for welfare recipients whose benefits had been reduced.
Bevilacqua also set up a Spanish-language radio show and instituted service centers for Latino and African American Catholics.
"We don’t help people because they are Catholic," he often said. "We help them because we are Catholic."
Bevilacqua seemed to revel in his frequent public meetings with congregants, visiting schools and nursing homes while posing for photos. He sometimes tossed his zucchetto, or skull cap, like a Frisbee into delighted crowds and even placed his bishop’s hat on children’s heads, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
But Bevilacqua’s tenure was marred by clergy sexual-abuse revelations that rocked the Philadelphia archdiocese in 2002, as the scandal was erupting nationwide and in Europe.
In 2005, after a 40-month grand jury investigation, a report by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office harshly criticized Bevilacqua and his predecessor, Cardinal John Krol, for failing to protect children from years of rapes and sexual abuse by priests.
"Sexually abusive priests were left quietly in place or 'recycled' to unsuspecting new parishes -- vastly expanding the number of children who were abused," the report said.
Bevilacqua did not respond to the report. His successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, said the report was "very unfair" for not addressing sexual abuse in other denominations or public institutions.
Bevilacqua condemned homosexuality, saying homosexual men were unfit to be priests. He said the Catholic Church considers homosexuality an "aberration, a moral evil."
Born in Brooklyn in 1923 and raised in Queens, Bevilacqua graduated from a seminary at age 26 and was ordained in 1949. He earned advanced degrees in canon law, civil law and political science.
Pope John Paul II named Bevilacqua archbishop of the Philadelphia archdiocese in late 1987. He retired in 2003.
A day before his death, a Philadelphia judge ruled that Bevilacqua, who suffered from dementia, was competent and could testify in the upcoming trial of a Philadelphia priest accused of failing to protect two children from sexual abuse by a priest under his supervision.
In 1998, the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper, reported that Bevilacqua had secretly spent approximately $5 million to renovate a mansion that served as his residence and to renovate a seaside villa used as a vacation home by Bevilacqua and retired priests.
The improvements were carried out at roughly the same time that Bevilacqua approved the closing or merging of inner-city parishes and schools because they had budget deficits and suffered from low attendance, the newspaper reported. Those closings were met with outrage by some parishioners and social activists, who accused the archdiocese of racism.
Bevilacqua was "surprised and embarrassed" by the reaction, the Inquirer reported. He set up a process in which local priests and members of the lay community took the lead in deciding whether or how to close or merge parishes.
While bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese in the early 1980s, Bevilacqua ended his predecessor’s practice of including women in the traditional Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. Bevilacqua said Jesus had washed only the feet of his male apostles.
After protesters demonstrated against the decision, Bevilacqua consulted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which concluded that including women in the ceremony was proper. Bevilacqua relented, saying local priests could make their own decisions on the matter.
Bevilacqua also backed down from his refusal to allow Catholic churches and schools to close for the King holiday. In 1998, he announced that the holiday could be honored.
Later that year, Bevilacqua wrote a pastoral letter condemning racism as "an evil that violates Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself."
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Photo: Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, shown in this Dec. 2, 2000, file photo, served as head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for more than 15 years. Credit: H. Rumph Jr. / Associated Press