COMPARED with generations of Catholic prelates - to whom the faithful literally bowed in order to kiss their rings - the personal style of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was a break from the past.
Bevilacqua, who died Tuesday at age 88, was gregarious and photogenic, personally charming, approachable and funny- for a cardinal, that is. In his 15 years leading the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (1988-2003), he spent a day at each of its 302 parishes, posing for photos with congregants, sometimes tossing his skullcap through the air like a Frisbee. A champion of interfaith dialogue, he was a frequent guest speaker at local synagogues.
What wasn't a break from the past, though, was Bevilacqua's continuation of a longstanding policy of refusing to answer questions or countenance any criticism on pretty much any subject, from school closings and finances to the sexual abuse of children by diocesan priests.
In particular, the Archdiocese exerted pressure on news organizations to block coverage deemed negative. "Church leaders believe they are always working for good and find it difficult that anyone would believe otherwise," an Archdiocesan spokeswoman told the American Journalism Review in 1998. "I think they become uncomfortable, perhaps sometimes even defensive, when their decisions are questioned."
Yet, while Bevilacqua and other archdiocesan officials wouldn't take questions about what they considered "internal" church matters, they certainly could dish it out.
For example, Bevilacqua had no qualms about inserting himself into the 1993 debate on whether to allow domestic partners of city employees to qualify for benefits. In the first-ever appearance of a cardinal before City Council, he condemned the legislation as "immoral." This was at the same time that, according to the report of a Philadelphia grand jury, many priests charged with molesting children were being protected from punishment.
Who knows how much a "barricades mentality" contributed to the alleged failure of church officials to respond adequately to these accusations? Three priests and a teacher have been indicted for abuse, and an archdiocesan official has been charged with child endangerment, the first-ever prosecution of a cover-up by the church. On the day of his death, Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina ruled that Bevilacqua could be called to testify at the trial. It's unclear what his death means for the testimony he gave during multiple appearances before the grand jury.
In the years following his retirement in 2003, it was reported that the controversy had left him a broken man living in near-total isolation.
One lesson to take away from the shadow cast over his legacy is that it does no one any favors to back off from raising legitimate questions about the church - and that includes the church and the men who lead it.