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

Earlier this year, Father Bambrick received an e-mail from the woman, to whom he hadn’t spoken for many years. Her e-mail was very disturbing: Father Reardon, the woman had just learned, was one of the 21 priests the archdiocese suspended in March. Despite what he had done to the woman when she was a little girl, despite Monsignor Lynn’s promises to her, Reardon was still part of the ministry.

AS THE YEARS PASSED, Cardinal Bevilacqua seemed to behave more like a CEO who began as a shop boy but forgot where he came from. Or perhaps more like a king.

Father Bambrick went to Dallas in 2002 to a convention of bishops addressing the Church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse. Bambrick remembers a meeting of victims and their families telling their stories to the bishops, with everyone sitting in a big circle. Midway through Bambrick’s story, Bevilacqua interrupted him and began talking about how the bishops were making great progress in dealing with this terrible problem blown out of proportion by a media circus that—

“Excuse me, Your Eminence,” Father Bambrick stopped him. “With all due deference, Your Eminence, I’m speaking. We were invited here for you to listen, not for you to talk. The Church has talked enough. The victims now have to be listened to.”

Bevilacqua appeared stunned, but he allowed Bambrick to finish his story.

The next day at the conference, Bambrick tried to go to Mass in the hotel ballroom, but a guard wouldn’t let him in because he’d forgotten his pass. At that moment, Cardinal Bevilacqua himself appeared, about to enter the room, so Bambrick told the guard that His Eminence would vouch for him.

“I most certainly will not vouch for you,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said.

“Your Eminence,” Bambrick said, “you know I’m a priest. I was in a meeting with you yesterday.”

“You don’t have a pass,” His Eminence said. “Be on your way. Go. Go on.”

Another time, an archdiocesan employee who had close contact with Bevilacqua was fired after suffering a heart attack. He filed a workers’ compensation claim against the archdiocese; his lawyer hired a psychiatrist to examine him and submit a report in support of the claim. As described by journalist Ralph Cipriano in Courtroom Cowboy, a biography of Philadelphia lawyer Jim Beasley, the psychiatrist’s report portrayed the cardinal in an even more disturbing light.

In the report, the employee—who declined to be interviewed for this article—was described as a “devout Catholic” distressed by the cardinal’s “rude and abusive treatment,” as well as by conduct the employee said was habitual: Bevilacqua inviting women whom he met on planes to spend time at his mansion on City Avenue, and Bevilacqua often riding with women in the back of his car.

One woman in particular, according to the employee, followed the cardinal to “every” function, even if it was, say, in Downingtown or Brooklyn. She would have closed-door meetings with him after these functions, and the employee frequently saw Bevilacqua massaging the woman’s back, hugging her and showing “undue affection” for her. A relative of the employee told him he’d seen Bevilacqua meeting with the woman on the grounds of the cardinal’s mansion at night and on the campus of St. Joseph’s University, which was next door.

The psychiatrist claimed that the employee was so bothered by the cardinal’s frequent meetings with the woman that he spoke to various bishops, monsignors and priests about it. Some of them jokingly referred to the woman as “Fatal Attraction,” and they would kid with the employee over whether she had appeared at the cardinal’s latest function.

Cipriano eventually met “Fatal Attraction” herself, a middle-aged widow who seemed shocked by the allegations of the psychiatrist’s report. She told Cipriano that she and the cardinal were “just the best of friends” and nothing else—and also that her children and late husband “were along at all times, and I have the pictures to prove it.”

Cipriano never determined whether the claims in the psychiatrist’s report were true. The archdiocese eventually settled with the fired employee for $87,500.

Another employee with access to the cardinal’s car says he once noted the mileage on the odometer before and after Bevilacqua had mysteriously driven off alone late at night. It was exactly the distance, says the employee, from City Avenue to the house of “Fatal Attraction” and back again.

(When asked to clarify the cardinal’s relationship with the woman, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said she’d never heard any of this before, adding, “We would not dignify [it] with a response.”)

When District Attorney Lynne Abraham first convened the grand jury in 2003, Tom Doyle—by this time a widely sought expert on sexual-abuse issues—was summoned here. He had long since fallen out of touch with Bevilacqua. But now Doyle was shocked by what he learned, about how victims were treated, about how priests were moved around under Bevilacqua. By how the trappings of power had changed his old friend.

“That’s not the Tony Bevilacqua that I knew,” he says. Doyle now believes that Cardinal Bevilacqua—who’s 88 years old and said to be infirm—should be in prison.

THERE WAS A general feeling among Philadelphia’s Catholic parishioners that, as bad as the 2005 grand jury report was, the Church would get past it. The Church would clean up the mess and move on.

But Justin Rigali, it turns out, is particularly unsuited to deal with a problem so scandalous and unseemly. He grew up in Los Angeles, was ordained a priest in 1961, and then spent the next three decades at the Vatican in a variety of capacities. Living in a timeless walled city-state, Rigali’s sense of the world emanated through the texts of church documents; other priests were his constant companions. The stuff of ordinary life—poverty and friction and desperation—did not get inside those walls. Rigali embraced duty; the light in his Vatican office burned late.

Then, for nine years, before coming to Philadelphia to replace Bevilacqua in 2003, Rigali was archbishop of St. Louis, and he once described the sexual-abuse scandal there as the worst problem of his tenure. For a period, he would meet with victims, but his solution to their rage and pain and wrecked lives was prayer; he soon stopped meeting with victims altogether, according to SNAP. Mostly, he seemed to avoid the whole thing. SNAP pressured Rigali and tried to meet with him right up until his last weekend in St. Louis—but he never agreed to.