By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A judge ruled on Friday that prosecution experts could examine retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to see if he is fit to testify in a church sex scandal trial.
Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina made the ruling while also sternly reinforcing a gag order on attorneys on both sides of a case that has enmeshed the church in a scandal for years.
Bevilacqua, 88, is not a defendant in the criminal cases against a monsignor, two priests, a defrocked priest and a former archdiocese school teacher.
But whether he is well enough to testify has become a pivotal issue in the legal battle. A Philadelphia grand jury that brought the charges earlier this year said Bevilacqua presented them with a difficult dilemma.
"The cardinal's top lawyer appeared before the grand jury and testified that the cardinal … suffers from dementia and cancer. We are not entirely sure what to believe on that point," the grand jury said in a report.
The jurors said that Bevilacqua was kept closely advised of Monsignor William Lynn's activities and "personally authorized many of them."
Lynn was the secretary of the clergy at the time, and is charged now with endangering children.
The grand jury report, issued in January, said that jurors did not think a criminal case could be brought against Bevilacqua "at least for the moment."
While the tight gag order applies to lawyers in the criminal case, it does not affect those lawyers who filed six civil suits against the church alleging sexual abuse.
One of them, Marci Hamilton, a professor of law at New York's Yeshiva University, said on Friday, "What we are hearing is that he (Bevilacqua) is perfectly capable."
She declined to identify her sources. Hamilton said the judge in her ruling clearly rejected the idea that Bevilacqua could not testify at all.
"I am presuming that the cardinal is competent, all witnesses are presumed to be competent," Sarmina said in court on Friday.
Sarmina set November 28 as the next hearing date.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)