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

The 100 rich Catholics sat, stunned, silent. They had never heard a member of the clergy—a cardinal, no less—speak in this way.

“After all, they have given their lives to the priesthood,” Bevilacqua continued. “They have dedicated their whole existence to the Catholic Church, and we owe them something. And what are we going to do with them?”

The cardinal threw his arms up, as if he were saying, Of course I can’t abandon them, and then he repeated his lament: “What are we going to do with them?”

Suddenly a woman’s voice, from behind the cardinal, offered an answer: “You could castrate them.”

Bevilacqua doubled over as if he’d been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, then whipped around, his face quickly reddening, and snapped, “What did you say?”

The woman repeated her solution: “You could castrate them.”

“You cannot do that!”

“Yes, you can,” the woman said.

The cardinal, beet-red now, his famous praying-mantis eyebrows twitching with rage, told her, very slowly, “I am the cardinal. And I say you cannot do that.”

“I am a doctor,” the woman replied, her anger controlled, “and I say that you can.”

Cardinal Bevilacqua turned away from the woman, thanked everyone for their attention, and left the room.

ONCE HE CAME TO Philadelphia, Anthony Bevilacqua was no longer answering Tom Doyle’s e-mails asking for advice on the sexual-abuse issue. Perhaps, as Doyle assumed, because he was too busy. Or perhaps because he had gone too far down the other road.

Consider what victims of sexual abuse went through as they gathered the courage to complain to the archdiocese when Bevilacqua was running it in the early ’90s.

They would meet each other quietly at the Philadelphia Airport. Or at a guy’s house in the Northeast—he would shoo his family away. To an overwhelming extent, victims of priestly sexual abuse felt ashamed and adrift, unable to share their pain with anyone, including their families—and especially their church.

It was beginning to change, though.

Barbara Blaine, a victim of sexual abuse by a priest as a young girl in Ohio in the ’70s, had formed Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests—SNAP—a national organization. Father John Bambrick, now a pastor in Toms River, had also been abused by a priest as a teenager, and he started reaching out to Philadelphia-area victims, putting tiny ads in newspapers to signal that there was a way out of their silence.

Bambrick is a small, dark-haired man who speaks quickly and moves fast. He and SNAP volunteers began escorting Philadelphia victims to the archdiocese offices off Logan Square, so that they could tell their stories and confront their abusers.

This is how Bambrick says the Church—under Bevilacqua’s direction—set it up: A couple floors below the cardinal’s office, the victim and Bambrick would wait in a small, dimly lit antechamber until Monsignor Lynn emerged from a conference room, greeted Bambrick and the victim—for Lynn was always kind to victims—and then escorted them into the conference room.

In the case of one important alleged abuser, Bishop John Graham, the monsignor told Father Bambrick that the victim had to come into the conference room alone. “This is the way the cardinal wants it,” Lynn said, meaning Bevilacqua. “Graham’s a bishop of the diocese, and he’s to be treated with the utmost respect.”

Bambrick told Lynn that if the victim wasn’t allowed to go in accompanied, they would walk to the Inquirer and ask to speak to the city editor—they had a story to tell.

“Just a minute,” Lynn said.

He left to confer with the bishop. In a few minutes, he returned and led the victim, Bambrick and a SNAP volunteer into the conference room. As usual, the alleged perpetrator and those present to support him were sitting along one side of a conference table, their backs to the door, so that the victim had to walk around them and then sit, his back to a wall, facing them. The dome of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul loomed outside a window. In this case, Bishop Graham was accompanied by at least six priests and other church officials. (Graham was never indicted or named in a grand jury report.)

It was all about intimidation, of course: In bringing his story to his church, a victim was forced to sit face-to-face with the man who had, in many cases, raped him.

Given the setup, the victim would struggle to tell his story as best he could. Then the accused priest would deny that the abuse had ever taken place. Father Bambrick was not allowed to say a word.

Monsignor Lynn, when he escorted the victim and Father Bambrick back out to the antechamber, would never express any leaning—he would never give the victim any sense that he believed him. This was a legal nicety; victims, after all, could sue.

Except one time, Bambrick recalls, Lynn slipped. It happened in the early­ ’90s with a woman Father Bambrick brought in. She was from a local church and said she had been abused as a girl by Father John Reardon. He began by fingering her vagina when she was nine years old. After she told her story—and Reardon denied it—Lynn told the woman, in front of Bambrick, that he believed her, and that Reardon would never work in any capacity around children again. He made that promise.