Retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who led Philly's Roman Catholics for 15 years, died Tuesday night, according to Donna Farrell of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
The religious leader was 88.
Farrell told NBC10 Bevilacqua died in his sleep around 9:15 p.m. at his retirement home on the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. He suffered from dementia and cancer.
"I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of my predecessor Cardinal Bevilacqua," said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. "I encourage all Catholics in the Archdiocese to join me in praying for the repose of his soul and that God will comfort his family as they mourn his loss. Cardinal Bevilacqua has been called home by God; a servant of the Lord who loved Jesus Christ and His people."
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Bevilacqua was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. on June 17, 1923. The son of two Italian immigrants, he was ordained to the priesthood on June 11, 1949. He was an American Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and served as Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1988 to 2003 after serving the Pittsburgh Archdiocese.
Trained as both a civil and canon lawyer, Bevilacqua was sharply criticized but never charged by two Philadelphia grand juries investigating child sex abuse complaints lodged against dozens of priests in the archdiocese.
His death comes just days after lawyers battled in court over his competency as a potential witness in the upcoming trial of a longtime aide. A Court of Common Pleas judge ruled him competent to testify in the trial.
Bevilacqua had been deposed in late November to preserve his testimony, given his age and illnesses. But defense lawyers said he no longer recognized Lynn and could not remember much about his own 10 grueling appearances before the grand jury in 2003 and 2004.
"With the passing of Cardinal Bevilacqua, we will never learn the full truth about clergy sex crimes and cover ups," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
As a church leader, Bevilacqua campaigned for a moratorium on the death penalty and often spoke out against homosexuality, birth control and abortion. He headed the influential bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
In 2002, when the church came under fire for clerical sexual abuse, he called homosexuality an "aberration, a moral evil" and suggested gays were more likely to commit abuse. Under Bevilacqua, the Philadelphia archdiocese tried to weed out gay candidates to the priesthood -- a zero-tolerance policy experts called relatively rare.
He was not averse to new methods of outreach. Heeding the pope's call for a "New Evangelization," Bevilacqua used then-novel methods, such as a toll-free confession line, a live weekly radio call-in program and an online forum for people to pose questions to priests.
"We are carrying out the wishes of the Holy Father for a new evangelization, reaching out to people like never before," Bevilacqua said after a telephone hotline began in 1998.
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At the same time, attendance at weekly Mass and Catholic school enrollment was falling in some parts of the archdiocese, leading him to close inner-city schools and parishes. The decline continues. The five-county archdiocese just this month announced plans to close 48 schools, displacing nearly 24,000 students.
He earned a doctoral degree in canon law from Gregorian University, Rome, in 1956, a master's degree in political science from Columbia University in 1962 and a law degree from St. John's University Law School in 1975. While he was admitted to practice law in New York and Pennsylvania, he never argued in a court.
Bevilacqua is the second local Cardinal to die in recent weeks. Cardinal John Foley, who for 25 years was the voice for American viewers of the Vatican's Christmas Midnight Mass and who led the ancient Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, died in December.
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