Catholics in Crisis: Sex and Deception in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

As the Archdiocese reels from a second grand jury report detailing its cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, the local church faces the biggest crisis in its history. How could a spiritual institution turn a blind eye to evil not just once, but twice? The answer lies in the story of the two men who’ve led the Catholic Church in Philadelphia for the past 25 years

And he was a very clever man—both a canon and civil lawyer—and very ambitious.

Tom Doyle first met Tony Bevilacqua decades ago. Today, Doyle is probably the world’s best-known activist in the Church’s sexual-abuse scandal. He was once a Dominican priest who worked in the Vatican’s Washington embassy, on a fast track toward becoming a cardinal himself. (He still lives outside D.C.) Doyle is a canon lawyer, too, and he and Bevilacqua bonded over legal discussions, which surprised Doyle—a bishop taking time to pick his brain. But expertise in canon law was prized by the Vatican, and Bevilacqua was determined to become the U.S. authority on it. Doyle started talking at length to Bevilacqua about how the Church was handling sexual abuse, all the way back in the ’80s, when Bevilacqua was bishop of Pittsburgh.

As Doyle started working on a manual for the Church on dealing with the issue, Bevilacqua cheered him on. News of clerical sexual abuse wouldn’t become a household topic until the Boston Globe exposed that city’s archdiocese in 2002, so in helping take on the problem in the mid-’80s, Bevilacqua was way ahead of the curve.

Doyle came up with practical guidelines, ones that paid particular attention to getting abusive priests away from children and focused on counseling for victims. Bevilacqua read Doyle’s drafts, made suggestions, and championed a perspective that balanced sensitivity to victims with the legal and PR dilemmas of the Church.

Doyle planned to present the report to a conference of bishops in 1985, but no one was willing to listen. One bishop told Doyle that a committee had been formed, instead, “to look into the issue.” Doyle, devastated, called Bevilacqua and fumed; Bevilacqua invited his friend to come and talk it out.

In Pittsburgh, Bevilacqua told Doyle he had been lied to: “Tom, there is no committee.” Not only was Doyle’s report dead, but the bishops had decided not to look further into the problem of clerical sexual abuse.

“Bevilacqua was angry,” Doyle remembers. “He was really angry.” As for Doyle, he was beside himself: “At that point, I was still under the impression that bishops told the truth.”

Bevilacqua’s support for Doyle’s initiative—­again, one with sensitivity toward victims—might now seem disingenuous or worse, given how Bevilacqua would later handle the problem of pedophile priests. But there was a divide in Bevilacqua. When he was auxiliary archbishop in Brooklyn in the early ’80s, Bevilacqua had a priest named Romano Ferraro transferred to a church in St. Louis, because Ferraro preyed on children. In St. Louis, Ferraro allegedly abused three boys, then tried to come back to Brooklyn. Bevilacqua ordered his underlings “to seek an assignment outside the diocese” for Ferraro, according to a memo. Ferraro is now serving a life sentence in Massachusetts for raping a child there.

Shuffling Ferraro around was unconscionable, yet Bevilacqua was operating exactly as Church authorities do all over the world: Protect a priest’s job; protect the Church from scandal; move the priest to another unsuspecting parish. But how could Bevilacqua operate that way while championing Tom Doyle’s reforms?

“The only virtue is obedience,” says Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and an ex-priest who has spent the past few decades trying to understand the collision of sex and power in his church. “As long as you’re obedient to the Church, as long as you protect and embrace it, you are justified.” Obedience is drilled into young seminarians from day one. “You are not beholden to charity or truth or anything else. Everything can be sacrificed to obedience.”

Doyle believes Bevilacqua did want the Church to deal with sexual abuse in a more responsible way; meanwhile, though, Bevilacqua would move sex perps to some other parish. Because he was being obedient to, and protecting, his Church.

That moral dissonance must be tough to live with—unless, that is, a cleric develops a certain idea of himself and his position. Tom Doyle, the intellectual equal of Bevilacqua, found him to be caring, and saw him be very loving toward his myriad­ nieces and nephews. Those working under Bevilacqua in Philadelphia, however, say he was a royal prick as a boss. He would scream at his chauffeur over what route they took; he would demand that no mortals smudge the polished brass rails leading from the front door of his City Avenue mansion. Bevilacqua created an atmosphere in the archdiocesan offices in which underlings tiptoed about on tenterhooks as they did the cardinal’s bidding.

In the early ’90s, Bevilacqua closed many churches in North Philadelphia and other poor areas of the city because, he said, the archdiocese was financially strapped—though he spent $1.5 million on archdiocesan office renovations and a half-million more on a vacation home for priests in Ventnor. He refused to meet with parishioners who held demonstrations over the closed churches. According to an account in the National Catholic Reporter, a woman slipped into the church during one protest and found the cardinal in a vestibule. He refused to talk to her. She told him people needed to speak to him because they were hurting. He said to her, “When you have a problem, you don’t call the president. You call the people who work for the president.” He told her, “Nothing is going to be changed.”

Yet at the same time, Bevilacqua seemed to feel deeply for his priests. One May night in the mid-’90s, he hosted a group called Legatus, made up of well-off Catholic businesspeople, at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. About 100 people attended. After dinner, remember two people who were there, the cardinal rose and spoke in this vein:

“I want to talk to you about something I have to deal with and need your input on. It’s not public information, and I’m going to speak to you confidentially.

“This is a strange situation,” Bevilacqua went on. “In every part of society there are bad people—even in the Boy Scouts. I’m talking about sexual abuse. This is something that’s been developing over time, and we’re investigating ourselves. There are allegations of bad cases within the priesthood. We have come across a few priests who have admitted they have done bad things. Of course, they have confessed.”