In a box of old reporting notes the other day, I found a manila file folder. It contains the words of a dead man. Words that should help Pennsylvania's state senators gauge any pity they may feel for the pocketbook of the Catholic Church in the admittedly tense days ahead.
The folder is labeled, in all-caps Sharpie scrawl, BEVILACQ. INTVWS.
Its contents should eliminate any doubt about senators changing state law so that abuse victims can sue the institution.
Over three days in June 2002, Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua talked to me and several other reporters at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas. Church leaders were scrambling, at the height of the clergy abuse scandal, to look as if they were not leading an institution that had sacrificed the safety of children for decades.
At the time, Bevilacqua led the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Before that, the Pittsburgh Diocese. We didn't yet know he had been complicit in burying sex-abuse cases. A 2005 grand jury report in Philadelphia would make that plain. We didn't yet know, as we learned in 2011, that Bevilacqua had ordered the shredding of a list of the names of 35 possible abuser priests. That came during a criminal trial in Philadelphia against one of his monsignors. The judge ruled Bevilacqua competent to testify. Days later, the cardinal died without appearing in court.
It was easy, therefore, in 2002, at that historic convention, to buy Bevilacqua's message of penitence.
"Our priority now is the victims, first, and to prevent it as much as we can in the future," Bevilacqua said on day one of the bishops' gathering, "The safety of children is the highest priority, and we have to give every assistance possible to the victims."
In reality, it was a hollow platitude. For the better part of the next 16 years, Pennsylvania's Catholic bishops would actively resist giving "every assistance possible."
They have stymied, through their lobbying arm and in conjunction with the insurance industry, efforts to change the statute of limitations so that an expanded class of child sexual-abuse victims may bring civil lawsuits against the church and other institutions. Those efforts continue to this day. Bishops only recently, and under enormous pressure from last month's grand jury report into abuse cover-ups at six dioceses, offered to establish a victim compensation fund.
I should not have been shocked, looking back, that Bevilacqua's proclamations would prove flimsy.
After a 239-13 vote by bishops approving a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, reporters asked if mistakes had been made in the handling of victims, such as a countersuit the archdiocese had filed against a victim during Bevilacqua's tenure.
"We at that time, we have, at times, we have had no control over what the lawyers do," said Bevilacqua, who was a civil lawyer.
Would the archdiocese now insist police be told if a victim complaint came in?
"I'd have to ask my lawyers," he said.
Bevilacqua's successor, Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali, left in 2011 amid recriminations over his own handling of priest abuse.
The next church chief executive, Archbishop Charles Chaput, has assiduously continued efforts to deny victims expanded rights to sue. He helped defeat a statute of limitations reform bill in Colorado in 2006 — four years after the We Are Truly Sorry Convention.
In 2016, the Philadelphia Archdiocese deployed some of his Colorado tactics. Priests name-checked Pennsylvania lawmakers from the pulpit, all in the name of keeping the church from paying up for what it had done to kids.
Catholic lawmakers I interviewed were shaken — some teary, even. A Chaput spokesperson said there was nothing wrong with pastors telling worshipers how certain lawmakers had voted on the bill. Senate Republicans ended up blocking the change.
This fall, the GOP-controlled Senate gets one more chance.
It is considering a bill, approved by the House, that would change the statute so that adult victims may sue. It is an election year — a most risky time to hand the church yet another get-out-of-jail-free card.
Former GOP House Speaker Denny O'Brien of Philadelphia — a lifelong Catholic — was one of only a few Republicans at a rally for victims Monday. It still gnaws at him that he couldn't pass a retroactive statute-of-limitations measure when he was Judiciary Committee chairman in the mid-2000s. The church lobby, he said, was strong.