PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Church leaders called on parishioners Wednesday to pray for the soul of retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who led them for more than 15 years but was also an uncharged central figure in a child sex-abuse case that involves the alleged shuffling of predator priests.
Bevilacqua, who was 88, died in his sleep at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood after battling dementia and an undisclosed form of cancer, according to archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell. He had been the spiritual leader of the 1.5 million-member Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1988 until his retirement in 2003.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput encouraged all Catholics to "join me in praying for the repose of his soul."
"Cardinal Bevilacqua has been called home by God; a servant of the Lord who loved Jesus Christ and His people," Chaput said in a statement.
"Cardinal Bevilacqua's death comes at a time when the Archdiocese is facing extraordinary challenges," Chaput said. "During this difficult period, I invite all of our people to come together in prayer for a renewal of our Church and Her mission."
Bevilacqua, trained in both civil and canon law, 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.
Bevilacqua, a native of Brooklyn, was ordained a priest in 1949. He had also led the Pittsburgh archdiocese and served as auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn.
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 and expelled any seminarian found to be an active homosexual -- 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 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.
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.
Bevilacqua, as required, had submitted his retirement to Pope John Paul II when he turned 75 in 1998. But the pope did not accept it at that time, and the cardinal kept up 16-hour days into his late 70s.
"I exercise regularly and my whole work is constant activity of the mind. A lot of reading, meetings, analyses and discussions," he said at age 77. "My life as an archbishop is delightfully hectic."
He made a habit of rising daily at 5 a.m. to pray, lift weights and run several miles on a treadmill at home. "Come 8 o'clock, my day is not my own," he said.
But he settled into retirement after turning 80 in 2003. The first grand jury began its work that year. Bevilacqua's successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired last year after the second grand jury report led to the charges against Monsignor William Lynn and four others, including three priests charged with rape.
Prosecutors said last year that not much had changed since the first investigation, when the "abuse was known, tolerated, and hidden by high church officials, up to and including the Cardinal (Bevilacqua) himself."
Lynn was the first U.S. church official ever charged in the priest-abuse scandal for his administrative actions. His lawyers argue that he took orders from Bevilacqua.
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.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed "sadness" and sent condolences to the archdiocese in a telegram to Chaput.
"I offer my heartfelt condolences to you and to all the faithful of the archdiocese," the pope wrote. "I join you in commending the late cardinal's soul to God, the Father of mercies, with gratitude for his years of episcopal ministry among Christ's flock in Philadelphia, his longstanding commitment to social justice and the pastoral care of immigrants, and his expert contribution to the revision of the Church's law in the years following Vatican Council II."
Parishioners mourned the loss at services Wednesday, but acknowledged that his legacy would be complicated.
Julia Curcio, 27, who was attending church services at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, said she mourned his death, but struggled with the way he dealt with the church abuse case and his stance on homosexuality.
"It's hard for me to reconcile the way people like him act," Curcio said. "It's hard not to hold him responsible. You get the sense that he knew what was going on and could have stopped it."
"You can't think of the good things without the bad," she said.
Chris Stoddard, 69, of Wallingford, remembered Bevilacqua as "a great man" who was visible out in the parishes.
"The poor man is gone now and can't really defend himself," Stoddard said, noting that she would say a prayer for him in church. "It's very unfortunate that this may be what he's remembered for."
Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua was born in 1923, in Brooklyn, the ninth of 11 children of Italian immigrants.
He graduated from Cathedral College in 1943, then attended Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y.
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.
In 1976, he was named chancellor of the Brooklyn Diocese. He was ordained as a bishop in 1980 and made auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn.
He remained chancellor of the diocese and director of its Migration and Refugee Office until 1983, when Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik, who worked closely with Bevilacqua during his time in Pittsburgh in the 1980s, remembered him as the "bishop from Brooklyn" who quickly became "one of our own."
"What many did not realize was that he was a man of deep compassion, dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor," Zubik said in a statement. "There are many today who are remembering his personal kindness and faithful service - the twin pillars of his priesthood."
Associated Press writers Patrick Walters and Ron Todt contributed to this report.