Coroner: Bevilacqua died of natural causes

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua listens to a reporter's question as St. Louis Archbishop Justin F. Rigali, right listens at a news conference in Philadelphia Tuesday July 15, 2003. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
March 9, 2012 6:51:12 AM PST
A former leader of the Philadelphia archdiocese who passed away a day after he was ruled competent to testify at the child endangerment trial of a longtime aide died of natural causes, according to a county coroner who investigated at the behest of a suburban prosecutor who had deemed the timing of the death peculiar.

The Jan. 31 death of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua at a suburban seminary was caused by heart disease, with a contributing factor of prostate cancer, Montgomery County Coroner Walter Hofman said Thursday at a news conference. Scans of Bevilacqua's brain also showed evidence of dementia that was "fairly advanced," Hofman said.

Just before Bevilacqua died at age 88, a judge ruled him competent to testify at the child endangerment trial of Monsignor William Lynn, who's accused of quietly shuffling priests suspected of molesting children to unwitting parishes while he was a high-ranking archdiocesan official from 1992 to 2004. District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman called for an investigation of the death last month, noting the peculiar timing.

The coroner, however, noted that there was no evidence of any injury to Bevilacqua's body, that no unexpected substances were found and that all prescribed medications were within "accepted therapeutic levels."

"It is my opinion there is no relationship between the judge's competency ruling and his eminence's subsequent sudden death," Hofman said. "His eminence was 88 years old, was under very good medical care, had significant preexisting natural disease. Elderly people suddenly die. This is a natural death."

Church officials and attorneys previously had said Bevilacqua, who served as archbishop from 1988 to 2003, was suffering from dementia and cancer.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said Thursday that the cause of death was exactly what the church had expected all along.

"With this news, we hope that the speculation surrounding the cardinal's death will be laid to rest," Farrell said, adding that Hofman notified the diocese of his ruling before the news conference.

In a grand jury report on the case last year, prosecutors accused Bevilacqua of presiding over the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. But he was not charged with a crime.

Hofman also said he had received hate mail for the investigation, noting that some people erroneously believed he had "removed (Bevilacqua) from the crypt."

Bevilacqua's body was initially released to a funeral home the night he died, Hofman said, but the next morning prosecutors requested he investigate the death further. Hofman said he then requested that the body be taken back to his office in Norristown for further examination.

"The district attorney felt that because of the proximity of the judge's ruling in Philadelphia with his eminence's death, we should take a look," Hofman said.

A day before Bevilacqua died, a judge ruled that he was competent and that his recent deposition testimony could be used at Lynn's trial. Lynn's lawyers stressed Lynn took his marching orders from Bevilacqua, who was never charged despite two grand jury reports that blasted the cardinal's leadership and his 10 grand jury appearances. Lynn has maintained he's innocent.


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