FILE--Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, shown in this Dec. 2, 2000, file photo taken in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr., )
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who led the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia for more than 15 years but became a central figure in a child sex-abuse case involving the alleged shuffling of predator priests to unwitting parishes, has died. He was 88.
Bevilacqua died in his sleep Tuesday night at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary after battling dementia and an undisclosed form of cancer, an archdiocese spokeswoman said. He had been the spiritual leader of the 1.5 million-member Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1988 until his retirement in 2003.
Bevilacqua, trained as civil and canon lawyer, was sharply criticized but never charged by two grand juries investigating child sex abuse complaints lodged against dozens of priests in the archdiocese. His death comes just days after lawyers battled in court over his competency as a potential witness in the upcoming trial of a longtime aide.
Bevilacqua was ordained a priest in 1949. As a church leader, he campaigned for a moratorium on the death penalty and often spoke out against homosexuality, birth control and abortion. He headed the influential bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
In 2002, when the church came under fire for clerical sexual abuse, he called homosexuality an "aberration, a moral evil" and suggested gays were more likely to commit abuse. Under Bevilacqua, the Philadelphia archdiocese tried to weed out gay candidates to the priesthood and expelled any seminarian found to be an active homosexual — a zero-tolerance policy experts called relatively rare.
He was not averse to new methods of outreach. Heeding the pope's call for a "New Evangelization," Bevilacqua used then-novel methods, such a toll-free confession line, a live weekly radio call-in program and an online forum for people to pose questions to priests.
"We are carrying out the wishes of the Holy Father for a new evangelization, reaching out to people like never before," Bevilacqua said in 1998.
At the same time, attendance at weekly Mass and Catholic school enrollment was falling in some parts of the archdiocese, leading him to close inner-city schools and parishes. The decline continues. The five-county archdiocese just this month announced plans to close 48 schools, displacing nearly 24,000 students.
Bevilacqua, as required, had submitted his retirement to Pope John Paul II when he turned 75 in 1998. But the pope did not accept it at the time, and the cardinal kept up 16-hour days into his late 70s.
"I exercise regularly and my whole work is constant activity of the mind. A lot of reading, meetings, analyses and discussions," he said at age 77. "My life as an archbishop is delightfully hectic."
But he settled into retirement after turning 80 in 2003. The first grand jury began its work that year. Bevilacqua's successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired last year after the second grand jury report led to the charges against Monsignor William Lynn and four others, including three priests charged with rape. Both reports blasted Bevilacqua's leadership.
Lynn was the first U.S. church official ever charged in the priest-abuse scandal for his administrative actions. His lawyers argue that he took orders from Bevilacqua. Lynn's trial is scheduled to start in March.
Bevilacqua had been deposed in late November to preserve his testimony, given his age and illnesses. But defense lawyers said he no longer recognized Lynn and could not remember much about his own 10 grueling appearances before the grand jury in 2003 and 2004.
"With the passing of Cardinal Bevilacqua, we will never learn the full truth about clergy sex crimes and cover ups," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Associated Press Writer Ron Todt contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.