Bishop's Fall Unlocks Past Cases
Priests Aware of Other Molestations, Court Documents Show
By Scott Gold
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
June 6, 1998
Three years later, the mother still remembers the bishop's face _ how it remained flat, almost aloof, as she demanded to know how the priest who had molested her sons decades earlier had been allowed to remain in the priesthood.
Bishop Joseph Keith Symons, then head of the Diocese of Palm Beach, told her that he was sorry, that he had never known of Father Rocco D'Angelo's sexually abusive past.
That, the mother knows today, was a lie.
And behind Symons' blank stare was a dark secret of his own _ that he had molested five children _ a secret that led to his resignation in disgrace earlier this week.
"How he could sit there so calmly and talk to us and be faced with our pain, and treat it like nothing, I have no idea," the mother, who now lives in Riviera Beach, said in an interview on Friday.
Almost 25 years earlier, when Symons was vicar general and chancellor of the St. Petersburg Diocese, he and other church leaders had been advised of D'Angelo's pedophilia and treatment, court documents show.
According to documents compiled by investigators, Symons had determined that psychiatric reports "demonstrated (D'Angelo's) fitness . . . to serve as a priest" despite his past problems with pedophilia.
For years, say relatives of victims, Symons and other church leaders turned their backs on allegations of abuse at the hands of priests.
This week's startling revelation that Symons, too, molested five boys earlier in his 40-year career as a priest was devastating, they say.
Kevin Sidaway settled a lawsuit against the diocese and Symons last week. He had been molested by D'Angelo in 1967 at St. Mark's in Boynton Beach. Church officials told his family the priest would never work around children again, according to documents from Sidaway's case.
In 1993, Sidaway discovered that D'Angelo had been working in the St. Petersburg Diocese since the early 1970s.
Sexual abuse by D'Angelo finally caught up with another 42-year-old man in January 1996. The man, who became infected with HIV and suffered from depression, rented a storage locker in Fort Lauderdale, drove inside and locked the door behind him with the engine running, his mother said.
He died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
"Nobody will ever know how many kids were involved," his mother said in an interview on Friday from her home in Chesterfield, Mo.
"It's heartbreaking to think that the public has been so deceived."
To protect their children, the mothers are not being identified in this story.
Symons' confession raises questions about his handling of the D'Angelo case while Symons served in St. Petersburg, from 1971 to 1983.
The D'Angelo case began in 1967, when five boys told their parents that D'Angelo had molested them while serving as pastor of St. Mark's Catholic Church in Boynton Beach.
The boys' parents confronted church leaders in Miami _ then the headquarters of the Catholic Church for South Florida _ and the leaders promised them that D'Angelo would never work around children again, court records show.
In exchange, church leaders asked that the families not pursue criminal or civil court charges, court records show.
"The Diocese convinced the parents . . . that such actions would reflect on them as not being good Catholics, that they should not hurt the Church, that D'Angelo had no history of similar conduct," according to an affidavit filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court last year.
For eight months, D'Angelo was sent to St. Luke Institute near Baltimore, a common destination for priests who have struggled with alcohol or sexual deviance. After that treatment, the parents were told, D'Angelo "would not be placed in a parish or in any position where he would have unsupervised access to children," court documents say.
Instead, D'Angelo had been reassigned to parishes on Florida's west coast. There, he continued working with children, and eventually faced more allegations of molestation. Back in Palm Beach County, parents of the children who had originally been molested by D'Angelo were incensed.
When the Riviera Beach mother confronted Symons in the summer of 1995, he offered to pay for one son's counseling sessions. He left the money _ about $ 125 a week, always out of his own pocket, always in cash _ in small envelopes at the front desk of the diocese headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, she said.
The mother now thinks the payments were part of an effort by the church _ and by Symons _ to continue burying the abuse allegations. Their decisions, she says, compounded the grief faced by her sons. At one time, both wanted to be priests. Today, they battle with drugs, and both are alcoholics.
Documents later compiled by investigators showed that Symons had known of D'Angelo's abuse. But Symons had determined that psychiatric reports showed that D'Angelo could continue serving as a priest, court records show.
"It was, 'I'll look out for you and you look out for me,' " the Missouri mother said. "That was the attitude. I just kick myself sometimes when I stop to think. They did nothing about it."
Meanwhile, Symons had opportunities to surround himself with children.
In May 1958, he was ordained in the Diocese of St. Augustine, once the only diocese in Florida. Four months later, he founded St. John Manor, a retreat and camp south of Jacksonville, according to Kathleen Bagg-Morgan, spokeswoman for the St. Augustine diocese.
The retreat was used largely as an "overnight camping area" for children from the diocese and its youth ministry. Symons worked at the camp as its director, she said.
In May 1959, a year after he was ordained, he founded another retreat in Floral City, on Florida's west coast, called the Good Counsel Camp. Children often stayed overnight there, too, but it remains unclear whether Symons, the assistant director, actually worked on site.
By 1964, Symons was the pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Bradenton, a sprawling, adobe complex that includes an elementary and a middle school.
Symons apparently remained at the parish until 1971, when he took over as the chancellor in St. Petersburg.
Despite the allegations, people who worked with Symons in Bradenton or studied at St. Joseph's schools said there were no outward signs of any sexual deviance.
Con Nicholas, now a special education teacher at Riverview High School in nearby Sarasota, attended St. Joseph's school from first through eighth grade.
Symons was in Bradenton for five of those years, from 1964 through 1969, Nicholas said. Symons did not teach at the school, but handled administrative duties, such as handing out report cards, and delivered Mass to all students every Friday.
"I would have never suspected something like this," Nicholas said.
Relda Wilson remains finance director at St. Joseph's and worked for Symons during his tenure there.
"He was the brightest man I have ever worked with," Wilson said.
"He was very good, and seemed to be very good with people. I was as surprised as the rest of the world."
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