By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A Philadelphia judge is remaining firm that a retired Catholic cardinal would be a competent witness in a sex abuse trial as defense lawyers renewed pleas to exclude him, arguing that his memory was shot.
Whether Anthony Bevilacqua, 88, is well enough to testify has become a pivotal issue in the sex abuse trial of three priests, one now defrocked, and a former archdiocese school teacher. Another church official, Monsignor William Lynn, faces charges of child endangerment but is not accused of abuse.
A jury is set to begin hearing charges in March against the five defendants in a crisis that has put the archdiocese, the nation's sixth largest with 1.5 million adherents, on a national stage.
Child abuse controversies have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States in the last decade, and the church has paid out some $2 billion in settlements to victims, bankrupting a handful of dioceses.
Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said on Monday she was sticking to her view, despite the pleas of defense lawyers that Bevilacqua was unable to remember events over a 20-year period. Earlier, they had argued that Bevilacqua's "memory bank was an empty room."
Sarmina had ruled previously that Bevilacqua was legally competent as a witness.
Thomas Bergstrom, who represents Lynn, charged with child endangerment, argued on Monday that Sarmina should change her stance.
He said Bevilacqua, who ruled the archdiocese during most of the time a Philadelphia grand jury said the offenses occurred, did not recognize Lynn, who was one of his key aides as secretary of the clergy for years, during a recent deposition.
"He could not remember and didn't identify my own client, who I had stand up in front of him and asked whether or not he knew this gentleman," Bergstrom argued. He said Bevilacqua's condition would make it difficult to question him at a trial.
"We have no hope to be able to cross-examine Cardinal Bevilacqua about any of this because his answer will be the same: 'I don't remember, I don't remember,'" Bergstrom said. Sarmina, however, didn't budge.
"I am going to adhere to my original ruling, Mr. Bergstrom, so that is still in place,' she said.
She said if Bevilacqua were called as a witness at the trial, Bergstrom would have to assess the cardinal's condition then.
The original charges in the scandal were brought by the grand jury a year ago. While Lynn is charged only with child endangerment, the priests, former priest and school teacher are charged with child sex abuse between 1996 and 1999.
Jury selection is set to begin February 21 and the trial is scheduled to open on March 26.
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston)