Coroner probing Bevilacqua's cause of death

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (right with staff) says prayer over the casket of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua in the vestibule of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The first public viewing took place Monday evening. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)

Montgomery County authorities asked the county coroner to examine the body of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua last week to ensure the 88-year-old prelate died of natural causes, not foul play.

Coroner Walter I. Hofman said county prosecutors made the request because Bevilacqua died barely a day after a judge said the former leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia might have to testify at next month's child sex-abuse and endangerment trial for three current and former priests.

"They wanted to make sure there were no intervening events that could have speeded up that demise," Hofman said.

For now, the cause of death is pending. Hofman said the exam was not an autopsy, but he declined to elaborate or say if he saw signs of foul play. He also said he would not issue the cause of the cardinal's death until he sees the results of toxicology tests in a few weeks.

"It gives me some breathing time to review everything I need to review," he said.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and her first assistant, Kevin Steele, did not respond to requests for comment late Thursday.

Autopsies and other examinations of the dead are standard in homicides or when the decedent is young, seemingly healthy, or dies in unexplained circumstances. Hofman estimated that his office is notified of about 60 percent of the deaths in Montgomery County each year.

Bevilacqua, who led the archdiocese for 15 years, died Jan. 31 at his residence at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, just outside the city limits.

According to church officials and lawyers, he had been in declining health for several years, diagnosed with dementia, cancer, and other ailments. He gradually withdrew from the public spotlight after his 2003 retirement as the leader of the region's 1.5 million Catholics.

Still, his shadow loomed, particularly after two Philadelphia grand juries accused him and other church leaders of failing to respond to or covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.

One of Bevilacqua's top aides, Msgr. William J. Lynn, faces trial next month on child-endangerment charges for allegedly recommending sexually abusive priests for assignments that gave them access to minors.

Bevilacqua was not charged in the case, but, as Lynn's boss, had become a central witness.

In November, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina declared the cardinal competent and let prosecutors from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office question him during a closed hearing at the seminary. The assistant district attorneys cited Bevilacqua's frail health as one reason they wanted to preserve his testimony on videotape before the trial.

Acting on a request from defense attorneys, Sarmina last week reiterated her ruling that Bevilacqua was competent and could be called to the witness stand.

He died the next night.

A representative of the coroner's office came to the seminar the night the cardinal died, according to Donna Farrell, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

Bevilacqua's body was then transferred to Donohue Funeral Home in Upper Darby.

Hofman said he was asked the next morning by county prosecutors to conduct his examination. He arranged for Bevilacqua's body to be transported to the coroner's office in Norristown.

It had already been embalmed, but Hofman said embalming would not interfere with his exam. The body was returned to the funeral home later Tuesday.

The coroner also asked the archdiocese to turn over medical notes and any medicines Bevilacqua had ingested in the three weeks before his death, Farrell said.

"That was provided," she said.

A spokesman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said the office had no role in requesting the examination.

"It is a Montgomery County matter, and our office would not have anything to do with it," said spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson.

Bevilacqua was entombed Tuesday in a crypt at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774,, or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.