Family of Fallen Bishop in Despair
'He's a Very Good Man,' Says His Sister-In-Law

By Scott Gold
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
June 7, 1998

If only for an instant, before his love for his family and the Catholic Church prevails, the brother of disgraced Bishop J. Keith Symons feels it. He hates it, but he feels it: "I'm glad our mother is dead."

"I want to walk over to the cemetery and make sure she's still there," James Symons said on Saturday, rubbing his temples and dragging deeply on a cigarette. "Because she might have rolled over in her grave."

When she died in 1982, Ella Hamel Symons left three sons.

James, now 60 and the victim of a pair of strokes, is the youngest. Clayton, now 72, a retiree near Detroit, is the oldest. The middle son is Joseph Keith, the pride of his mother's life, a man who rose from blue-collar roots near the Dead River in northern Michigan to carry on the work of Christ's apostles.

He was the bishop of the Palm Beach Diocese for eight years, but he will be remembered as a pedophile after resigning last week following his startling confession that he molested five altar boys early in his 40-year priesthood.

James Symons and his wife of 21 years, Elaine, consented to an interview on Saturday inside their tiny home next to the railroad tracks in Largo, a retirement community wedged between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, north of St. Petersburg. It's the home Ella Hamel Symons lived in before she died.

In the six days since the bishop delivered his confession, much has been said about the grief felt by the church, by the clergy, by parishioners and, of course, by Symons' anonymous victims.

James and Elaine Symons _ two of the few people who proudly claim personal, not religious, relationships with the bishop _ represent yet another face of despair. Even for a man who loved J. Keith Symons more as a brother than as a bishop, the past week has allowed doubt to creep into James Symons' faith.

"I don't know what's going to happen to my brother," said James Symons, who was once known as "Teddy Bear" on his truck radio. "That man had to be damn sick to carry that in his guts for 30 years. How does he sit in confessional, sit there and listen to other people, with this on his mind?"

In 1945, Harold and Ella Symons moved their boys from Michigan to Miami. J. Keith Symons enrolled in Sts. Peter and Paul High School, graduated in 1949 and promptly announced to his mother _ the strictest, most unfaltering Catholic in the family _ that he would seek the priesthood. His mother was thrilled, but it was not a surprise.

"That's all he thought about," Elaine Symons said. "God."

On May 18, 1958, Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley ordained him as a priest in Miami. With no signs of the troubles to come, he poured himself into his work.

In 1981, he became the youngest bishop in the history of Florida, and by 1990, he had taken over the five-county Palm Beach Diocese. He was recognized for progressive outreach programs, including his creation of an Office of African-American Catholics and his work for the church's Committee for Latin America.

During his tenure in Palm Beach, the number of Catholics in the Palm Beach diocese doubled to 220,000.

But he never forgot his family, his brother said.

Twenty-one years ago, he flew to Illinois to perform James and Elaine Symons' wedding ceremony. Since then, he has baptized the couple's three children and five grandchildren, and has delivered some of their wedding vows, too.

Even toward the abrupt end of his career, he did what he could with a hectic schedule. When he was in the Tampa Bay area, he stopped by James and Elaine's house for dinner.

On Tuesday, the day the church announced his resignation, Elaine Symons' mother received a get-well card from him at her Tampa Bay nursing home.

"If he takes the time to do that with all this on his mind, he's a very good man," Elaine Symons said. "Everybody loved him."

But somehow, hiding behind the adoration of thousands, J. Keith Symons was a lonely man, his family members now believe.

"I don't think anybody gets close to him," James Symons said. "He doesn't have any close friends."

Elaine Symons thinks his vow of celibacy _ and the fact that he could never marry _ led to his downfall.

"I'm Catholic, too," she said. "But I don't mind saying it: I blame the church."

Just last week _ four weeks after the first abuse victim came forward, when he surely must have known that his career was over _ J. Keith Symons called his brother. They chatted briefly, as usual, but the bishop mentioned nothing of his problems. They have not talked since.

"I told him that I was always glad he was my brother," James Symons said. "I still am."


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