Friday, July 6, 2012

Ongoing Archdiocese Fire Sale Exposes 19-Year-Old Cover-Up of Cardinal Bevilacqua's Lavish Spending

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is holding a fire sale after running up $11.6 million in legal bills in the fiscal year prior to the priest abuse trial. Facing a $17 million operating deficit, the archdiocese is now selling off the cardinal's mansion on City Line Avenue, and closing down the 117-year-old archdiocese newspaper, The Catholic Standard & Times.

The latest victim of the church's austerity campaign is Villa St. Joseph-by-the-Sea. The grand summer vacation home where Cardinals Krol and Bevilacqua once entertained wealthy donors will soon be up for sale. It's a three-story brick and stucco oceanfront mansion that covers an entire city block along the boardwalk in Ventnor, N.J., and is assessed at $6.2 million.

The impending sale of the cardinal's seaside villa is not only a sign of the archdiocese's changing fortunes, but it also exposes a bunch of lies told by the cardinal's PR guys 19 years ago to get His Eminence out of a public relations jam over the villa. It's an amusing saga.

It should surprise nobody that a cardinal who in 1994 would order the shredding of a list of 35 abuser priests then in ministry a year earlier, in 1993, would launch an elaborate and untruthful cover-up of his own lavish spending habits. 

But you've got to admire the resourcefulness of the cardinal's spin machine. To pull off the villa cover-up, the cardinal and his PR guys enlisted the services of a wealthy donor willing to bend the truth, and they also planted a fraudulent article and photo in the archdiocese's own newspaper. Maybe it's a good thing that they're finally closing that house organ. The archdiocese spin machine also apparently manufactured a phony alibi about a non-existing "reverter clause" on the original deed of sale of the villa to claim that the cardinal couldn't sell the place if he wanted to.

It's a pack of lies that stood for 19 years. Somewhere, Brian Tierney is smiling.

The saga began on June 29, 1993, when a group of 18 protesters held a demonstration at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Using Superglue instead of nails, the protesters attached a list of grievances to the cathedral door that accused the cardinal of betraying the gospel by "willfully neglecting the poor."

The protesters said that at the same time he was closing poor churches and schools in North Philadelphia, the cardinal was redecorating his summer home. Talk about a public relations nightmare for His Eminence. At the time, minority parishioners were picketing the cathedral every week to protest the closings. I was there the day of the Martin Luther-style protest at the cathedral, covering the story as the religion reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Jay Devine, a spokesman on loan to the archdiocese from Tierney's PR firm, claimed the cardinal's vacation home was also a summer residence for up to a dozen retired priests. "The place was in fairly deplorable condition and needed that kind of work to accommodate the priests," Devine told the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 30, 1993, in a story that ran under my byline.

Permits on file at Ventnor City Hall showed contractors at the villa in 1993 were doing $118,000 worth of interior renovations, plumbing and electrical work. Tax records listed the archdiocese as the owner of the villa since 1963, with the place then assessed at $1.7 million, and the archdiocese paying annual taxes of $30,249 in 1992.

Nine days later, Devine told the Inquirer, however, that despite tax records listing the property as owned by the archdiocese, the property could not be sold because of a restriction on a deed from a benefactor. Here's what the Inquirer printed on July 9, 1993, in a story under my byline:

The villa was donated in 1963 to the archdiocese by Hannah Gertrude Hogan for use as a residence for retired priests, Devine said. Hogan stipulated in a deed conveyed to then-Archbishop Krol that if the villa were sold, it would revert to its original owners ... No archdiocese monies were used to pay for the improvements, Devine said.

Instead, the money to pay for the improvements came from a $1 million donation from John E. Connolly of Pittsburgh, a wealthy donor who made a fortune on riverboat gambling, Devine more