Long before his death Tuesday night, even an ailing Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua must have foreseen that one harsh epitaph for him already had been carved in stone.

The words were composed in 2005 by a Philadelphia grand jury investigating the sex-abuse scandal that exposed five dozen alleged predator priests - many of them active during Bevilacqua's 15-year stewardship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Archdiocesan officials, including Bevilacqua and his predecessor, Cardinal John Krol, stood by and then covered up hundreds of child-sexual assaults by priests, the jury alleged.

While lamenting that statutes had lapsed for the crimes, the panel said church officials' actions in remaining silent while accused priests were shuttled around to unsuspecting parishes was "as immoral as the abuse itself" and that there was no doubt the cardinals "were personally informed of almost all of the allegations . . . and personally decided or approved" a cover-up.

The fact that Bevilacqua, 88, and suffering from dementia and cancer at his death, chose not to publicly answer those devastating allegations makes it less likely this epitaph will be rewritten.

Certainly, the cardinal's death makes it all the more important that jurors in the pending trial of two priests and a former priest on sex-abuse charges get to hear his private, taped testimony.

That could offer some slim hope of revealing what one victims' advocate called "the full truth about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups" alleged by a second grand jury. And it represents a chance, perhaps, to gain a fuller picture of Bevilacqua.

To be sure, this was a man whose ascendance to the church's inner circle was marked by dedication - from age 14 - faith, and achievement to match his challenges and shortcomings.

With immigrant roots, Bevilacqua served as a role model by earning advanced degrees in law and political science. In his parochial work, he hewed to his humble origins as one of 11 children whose father was a stone cutter and cobbler - developing assistance programs and, in Philadelphia, bolstering a Catholic social-service mission that reached out to the minority community.

The cardinal helped give the city its second saint by championing the cause of Mother Katharine Drexel to Rome. In Drexel's spirit, Bevilacqua spoke eloquently against racism and on behalf of social-justice issues.

Declining Mass attendance stumped him as much as any churchman, and his controversial closure of inner-city parishes and schools endeared him to none. Yet, in hundreds of one-on-one encounters during his frequent parish visits, Bevilacqua showed a warmer side that belied his button-down lawyerly exterior. Indeed, his legacy might be different had he been more shepherd than counselor.