A FEW YEARS AGO, I went to a conference at the Union League where one of my heroes, Antonin Scalia, was going to be present.

I acted like a 'tweener faced with the prospect of meeting Justin Beiber: heart palpitations, twisted tongue and a conviction that my hair looked horrible.

You have to understand. For conservative lawyers, Justice Nino is a rock star.

So transfixed was I by the legal lion, I almost missed an opportunity to cross paths with another grandiose presence: Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who was also in attendance and being honored on his retirement. Imagine having those two in the same room: icons of church and state (and there wasn't much of a wall between them either, since I saw them sharing a drink in a corner.)

When a photographer approached and said that we could have a photo taken with both of the Eminent Italians, I jumped at the chance. For the first time in my life, I was speechless, stripped of the ability to communicate with anything other than my mesmerized eyes.

Fortunately, Scalia broke the ice by saying a few words in what I think was Sicilian and signed my copy of his book on constitutional interpretation (I thought about asking him to sign my hand, but on the off chance that I'd argue in front of him one day, decided to retain a shred of dignity.)

Dignity. A good word to describe Bevilacqua, who didn't really mingle with the crowd but was gracious if you wanted to kiss his ring. Which I did.

By this, I don't mean to say that the cardinal was haughty or unpleasant. Not knowing him personally, I couldn't describe his character among friends or in intimate moments with colleagues. It just seemed to me that this leader of the church in Philadelphia was a perfect example of gravitas and grandeur, an old-school prelate who probably preferred Gregorian chant to that regrettable creature of the '70s, the guitar Mass.

When I heard that Bevilacqua was suffering from dementia, and that they were demanding his presence at a deposition in the abuse scandal and possibly at trial, my first thought was: Thank God he's no longer in possession of his faculties. The man whom I saw at the Union League, proud and dignified in his Roman collar, would have been mortified to appear in public in a diminished state, like a sideshow.

Someone who had spent his adult life with reserve and who had avoided scandal like the plague, this would have been a particularly painful purgatory.

Of course, as we all know now, scandal dogged him to the end. The name "Bevilacqua" means drinker of water, that most transparent and life-giving of substances. Ironically, the cardinal was considered by many to be anything but transparent, and his tenure at the head of the Archdiocese will continue to be dissected for heinous crimes and greater sins.

Personally, I don't believe that Bevilacqua meant to shield criminals and rob their victims of justice. For those who take the two grand-jury reports as the gospel truth (an awful lot of secular Bible thumpers out there these days), the cardinal will be the man who sheltered rapists.

They'll greet his death with something akin to joy, and lament that he somehow escaped terrestrial judgment (but hope that the celestial variety will be swift and unforgiving).

The truth is, Anthony Bevilacqua was no saint. If the grand-jury allegations are true and he transferred known sex offenders to other parishes instead of notifying the police that crimes were occurring on his watch, his conduct was criminal.

And yet, perhaps it was his sense of propriety - and redemption - that led him to shuffle priests as if they were chess pieces, believing that the interest of the church, the priests and the alleged victims would be better served by silence. It's a concept that doesn't carry much weight in a society that now rewards shouts and exhibitionists, and calls anything less than full exposure a "cover-up."

It's easy for us to judge, we who have our own particular prejudices and preconceptions. Unlike Joe Paterno, another elderly man who died under a cloud of suspicion and regret, Bevilacqua was not an embraceable character. And unlike Paterno, he will not be given the benefit of the doubt because the animus toward the church dwarfs disappointment with Penn State.

Still, I prefer to remember Anthony Bevilacqua for the dignity he brought to the city he adopted, loved and lived in till the end.

Others can dissect his sins. From me, a prayer for peace.