Originally published June 15, 2002

With the soft-spoken delivery and affinity for legalistic precision that have come to characterize his style as a top U.S. prelate, Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua was a subtle but key force behind the crafting of the sex-abuse policy adopted yesterday by an overwhelming majority of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops.

Earlier in the week, he had proposed myriad amendments to the proposed policy, some of which were accepted by the committee crafting the report, some rejected.

Yesterday, as bishops reviewed and debated the document line by line, he stood at the microphone and, reading from a small tablet, urged them to support its adoption for "the common good of the church. "

In short, the 78-year-old cardinal was more than a figurehead with a formidable title. He was a leader to a body of bishops that, up to the final moments preceding the 239-13 vote, seemed precariously close to falling short of the majority needed to adopt the document.

"That vote was overwhelming," Cardinal Bevilacqua said last night, "because I had gotten word that there may not be two-thirds behind it. "

With its approval, Cardinal Bevilacqua and Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio return to their dioceses this weekend with a mandate to drastically change the way their institution handles allegations of abuse by priests against minors.

"I am pleased that the whole body of bishops has united behind decisive, forceful national norms that place concern for victims first, will protect children," Bishop DiMarzio said last night.

"When you get 239 [for] and only 13 against, that's practically unanimity," Cardinal Bevilacqua said. "But this is only the beginning now. What each bishop does in his own diocese is going to put a face on the words of today. This is where we begin to carry out what we promised. "

Bishop DiMarzio, embroiled in a lawsuit in which 18 plaintiffs allege that they were abused by priests over many years and that the Camden Diocese conspired to cover it up, had sought to give dioceses latitude in deciding whether to offer pastoral assistance to parishioners who are suing them.

But the committee that hammered out the policy before presenting it to the bishops yesterday for debate and a vote rejected the bishop's amendment.

The policy, as approved, requires that bishops provide counseling, spiritual assistance and other services agreed upon by the victim and the diocese.

The Camden bishop had wanted to insert this caveat: "This outreach may not be possible given pending lawsuits, but should be carried out when suits are settled. "

Bishop DiMarzio said he was concerned that such a requirement could create legal problems as dioceses try to reach out to people who are in the process of suing them.

"Anything you say is introduced into the suit," he said. "Most attorneys . . . would say that once you have a lawsuit pending against you, you really can't talk to the person except in a legal context. So that was my concern. "

The reach of Cardinal Bevilacqua 's amendments was more extensive. Most of his concerns stemmed from his expertise as both a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer dealing with the internal rules and regulations governing the church.

One of his amendments that was rejected would have more narrowly defined the types of sexual-abuse allegations that diocesan officials would be required to report to authorities. It read: "A diocese should not report an accusation when it is seriously questionable or frivolous. "

The cardinal had wanted to insert that only "credible" allegations of abuse against a minor be reported to authorities.

"All I wanted was that it be reasonable," Cardinal Bevilacqua said last night.

The goal was to avoid having to report cases that may not have merit. But under the new policy, any single allegation brought before diocesan officials must be reported to authorities – a measure that is tougher than mandated reporting laws in place for child abuse in states across the country, including Pennsylvania.

In another case, the cardinal urged, successfully, that the bishops be clear in how they ultimately define sexual abuse, saying: "Unless we define sexual abuse carefully, we might be inflicting harsher consequences and penalties than the priest deserves. "

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-5162 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.