31 August 2011
By John P. Martin
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
A lawyer for Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua said the former leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is too sick to come to court next month and should be allowed to testify privately at home about his health and how he handled years of allegations that local priests had molested children.
The attorney, Brian J. McMonagle, told a judge Tuesday that prosecutors are pressing Bevilacqua to appear in open court only “so that he has to walk the gauntlet, and come to the courthouse with all the fanfare.”
Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson disputed that, saying prosecutors wanted to avoid the appearance of treating the 88-year-old cardinal differently than any witness in a criminal case.
Gilson also told Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina that a sealed hearing might be seen as an extension of the secrecy that long shrouded the church’s response to sex abuse allegations.
“I would argue it is in the public interest to open these doors and knock down these walls,” Gilson said.
The lawyers’ comments came as both sides and the judge began planning for what could be an extraordinary moment: a public interrogation of a prelate who for more than a decade led the 1.5-million member archdiocese but who has been largely out of sight since the clergy sex abuse scandal broke.
Earlier this month, Sarmina ordered the cardinal to appear in court on Sept. 12 so she could determine if he was competent to testify.
Citing the concerns about his health, prosecutors want to question Bevilacqua on videotape in case he can’t appear at the trial next spring of three former and current priests accused of raping boys in the 1990s and a fourth accused of enabling the abuse.
Though never charged, Bevilacqua remains a key figure in that case.
One of his top aides, Mgsr. William J. Lynn, is accused of endangerment for allegedly placing the three priests in posts that let them abuse children. Lynn is the country’s highest-ranking church official to be charged with protecting abusive priests or concealing their acts.
The grand jury that earlier this year recommended the charges also castigated the cardinal and church leaders for how they handled abuse complaints and responded to victims.
Bevilacqua was spared from testifying before that panel; his lawyers argued that he was frail and suffered from dementia, cancer and other ailments. Earlier this month, the judge asked for proof: She ordered the cardinal’s doctors to turn over two years worth of his medical records and for him to come to court.
Prosecutors maintain that the competency hearing and their deposition should be public. Gilson said there was no evidence to suggest that Bevilacqua was bed-ridden or unable to appear.
“He gets around, he does travel, he does go places,” the prosecutor told the judge.
McMonagle, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who recently joined the case as Bevilacqua’s attorney, argued that prosecutors routinely take statements from ailing witnesses outside of court – and wondered if they were changing that practice because of the witness.
“Is this the ‘cardinal’s exception’ for being decent?” McMonagle said.
He also said the archdiocese had agreed to set up a room to accommodate the judge and attorneys for several days of questioning at the cardinal’s mansion or neighboring seminary.
Sarmina said she wanted to review the records and talk privately to the lawyers before ruling where and under what conditions Bevilacqua testifies.
“I’m not clear that he is suffering from dementia – he may be – but I’m not clear on that,” the