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  Priest's 1995 Misconduct Case Surfaces
Allegations Not True, He Says

By Nicole Sterghos
Sun-Sentinel [Fort Lauderdale FL]
April 20, 2002

A New York priest who left Long Island after six months of psychiatric treatment for his sexual relationship with a teenager was dismissed from the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach in 1995 after an adult parishioner here also accused him of misconduct, local diocese officials said this week.

Thomas DeVita, 55, had served for five months at parishes in Royal Palm Beach and Wellington when the new allegations surfaced in October 1995, and he was "removed from ministry," according to a statement by the Palm Beach Diocese.

But Palm Beach Catholic officials, then under the leadership of Bishop J. Keith Symons, did not inform diocese leaders in Kalamazoo, Mich., when DeVita moved there in late 1995, said Ed Carey, chancellor at the Kalamazoo Diocese.

Carey added that DeVita said that no one in the Palm Beach Diocese had confronted him with the allegations. Despite DeVita's controversial past, Kalamazoo church officials steadfastly have stood by their priest, saying they believe his indiscretion in Long Island was an aberration and that the allegation arising in the Palm Beach diocese was unfounded.

"Father DeVita vehemently denies [any sexual misconduct in Palm Beach]," Carey said on Friday. "Father DeVita has had some problems in the past, but lying is not one of them, believe me."

DeVita did not return calls for comment on Friday, and on Wednesday, a woman answering the phone at his New Buffalo, Mich., parish said, "We're not interested" in commenting.

It was three years after the 1995 accusation was lodged before Kalamazoo church officials learned of it from an interim leader in the Palm Beach diocese, who wrote a letter after DeVita's public admissions of misconduct, Carey said.

In August 1998, amid rumors of DeVita's behavior in Long Island, the priest took the pulpit and confessed to New Buffalo parishioners that he had had a sexual relationship with a Kings Park teenager 20 years before. Though the boy's mother told the Sun-Sentinel that DeVita sexually attacked her son and left bruises and cuts on him during a pre-Christmas weekend trip, DeVita told parishioners that the relationship was improper but consensual, according to published reports.

An August 1998 Newsday story quoted DeVita as saying the teenager was 16, but the boy's mother said her son was 14 at the time. After the trip to New York City, her son locked himself in his room "like a hermit" for three days before asking her to take him to the pediatrician, who suggested the teen had been sexually abused, the mother told the Sun-Sentinel.

She confronted DeVita in his rectory and demanded he never touch her son again, but the mother said it wasn't until 1984 that she would tell church officials. But she said nothing was done until 1993, when she objected to DeVita's imminent assignment to another Long Island parish.

That is when DeVita was sent for six months of psychiatric treatment, Rockville Centre officials told Newsday in 1998. After his treatment, DeVita was judged fit to continue his ministry, but he chose to move on to Venice, Fla., in early 1994, Newsday reported. Venice church officials would not say why DeVita left there to come to the Palm Beach Diocese in mid-1995, and Rockville Centre officials did not return calls for comment on Friday.

In his pulpit confession to his Michigan parishioners, DeVita said he had not had any other sexual encounters with anyone of either sex since his relationship with the teen ended in 1978.

Shortly after DeVita's August 1998 confession, the Kalamazoo Diocese received a letter from Bishop Robert N. Lynch, then serving as acting administrator in the Palm Beach Diocese after Symons resigned over his own sex abuse admissions.

In the letter, Lynch said that an adult male had accused DeVita of sexual abuse while he was pastor at Our Lady Queen of Apostles in Royal Palm Beach, according to Carey.

Details were limited, but Lynch wrote that DeVita was then moved to St. Rita in Wellington until late October, when he was dismissed from ministry in the Palm Beach Diocese. Deacon Sam Barbaro, spokesman for the Diocese of Palm Beach, said he could not provide further details about the 1995 allegation and could not comment beyond the vague, four-sentence statement diocese officials released to the Sun-Sentinel this week. The statement confirmed DeVita's dismissal and said he had come to Palm Beach County after his problems in Long Island carrying a "psychological report recommending [his] continued ministry."

In an interview last month, the Very Rev. James Murtagh, who is running the Palm Beach Diocese until a new bishop is named to replace another disgraced bishop, Anthony J. O'Connell, said the diocese had never had to investigate or settle cases involving allegations of sexual abuse of minors. He did say, though, that more than one priest had been removed from ministry in Palm Beach County over credible allegations of misconduct with adults, but would not give specifics.

Carey said that Lynch was unable to provide the name of DeVita's accuser and after a limited investigation, Kalamazoo officials determined the allegation to be unfounded. Carey did not know whether or how extensively Palm Beach Diocese officials investigated the accusation.

"If it was investigated, it wasn't documented," Carey said. "They don't have a whole lot of information about the allegation."

But Carey said that he's convinced the claim had nothing to do with DeVita's removal from the Palm Beach Diocese ministry. Carey said that in a letter to DeVita informing him that his pastoral privileges would expire by Nov. 1, 1995, Symons mentioned the Long Island scandal as the reason the diocese would not be able to provide a permanent assignment for him.

The victim in the Long Island scandal, now 39 and a resident of Key West, was on vacation in Costa Rica this week and could not be reached for comment.

His mother said she is not surprised to hear of another allegation lodged against the priest who had promised to take her son under his wing. She still feels the sting of betrayal whenever she thinks of what her son went through.

"In those days, parents didn't give any thought to something like that," she said. "You thought, 'He couldn't be safer.'"

 
 

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