Bevilacqua's abuse testimony should have been public

An extraordinary legal drama is the talk of the town this week, but unlike most of what transpires in the American criminal justice system, this exclusive engagement was just for VIPs.

Behind closed doors at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on the Main Line, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was deposed and cross-examined on video in the privacy of his own home. Since when are criminal witnesses given such deference?

A handful of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and defendants attended the two-day legal proceeding. At least I think they did. No one associated with the child-rape and cover-up case can discuss it without risking being held in contempt.

The gag order rivals the church's chilling culture of secrecy. Yesterday, the judge even refused to confirm that the hearing had ended.

Bevilacqua, 88, has not been charged with a crime, but the man who presided over the archdiocese for 15 years remains a key witness in the case against Msgr. William Lynn, his secretary for clergy. Lynn was charged with conspiracy and child endangerment for transferring accused predators to parishes where they could abuse again.

What Bevilacqua said about how abuse allegations were handled during his reign is of great interest to victims and Catholics feeling betrayed by their church. But the cleric's remarks will become public only if the criminal case against Lynn, two priests, a defrocked priest, and a former lay teacher proceeds to trial. Even then, attorneys might only introduce excerpts, not the full transcript or video.

And if the defendants take plea deals - always a possibility - Bevilacqua's testimony could remain under seal forever.

Competency then and now

Bevilacqua appeared before the first clergy sex-abuse grand jury for 10 days in 2003 and 2004, defending the indefensible. Between skillfully parsing words and pleading bad memory, the lawyer-by-training boasted of purposefully avoiding media accounts of the saga.

"I've never read the Boston Globe," Bevilacqua declared. Later, he dismissed a question about the significance of the sex scandal.

"There have been, I think, more severe crises in the history of the church than this one."

Grand jury testimony almost never becomes public. Bevilacqua's revealing oratory came to light last summer only when the District Attorney's Office entered his transcript into evidence to bolster the conspiracy charge against Lynn.

Prosecutors wanted Bevilacqua to testify anew in January before the second grand jury. But a lawyer for the cardinal said he was too sick with cancer and dementia. The D.A.'s office relented, only to later argue that Bevilacqua must appear in court during the criminal proceedings to corroborate his previous statements.

Confused yet? Read on.

More unanswered questions

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina deemed Bevilacqua competent to testify after questioning him herself during the secret session in his home. Honoring the gag order she refused to lift, Sarmina wouldn't explain how or why she decided the sick man was, as of Monday, well enough to talk.

Nor could anyone explain this puzzler: If Bevilacqua is capable of speaking in private, why couldn't he provide the same testimony in open court? Was there a legitimate reason to preserve his words in this unique setting or was the cardinal accorded a courtesy because of his stature?

Every day, crime victims fearing for their lives must appear publicly in court, because ours is a judicial system defined by transparency.

Celebrities serve on juries, the rich take the witness stand. We need to believe we are equal in the eyes of the law - just as we need to know we can watch any trial in any courtroom in the land.

What Bevilacqua said or didn't say on that videotape may prove irrelevant to whether five men grow old in prison for raping and tormenting children. But in a high-stakes, historic case like this, the only just decision would have been to allow the public to listen.

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  • Monica Yant Kinney, Inquirer Columnist
    published this page in News Story of the Day 2011-11-30 09:16:00 -0600

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