Bishop Accountability

Bishop Symons Resigns
Diocese Leader Admits "Inappropriate Sex" with Children Early in Career

By Dan Moffett
Palm Beach Post
June 3, 1998

Bishop J. Keith Symons resigned Tuesday as spiritual leader of the Catholic Palm Beach diocese, admitting he sexually molested five boys early in his long career as a priest.

His stunning confession brought a crisis of faith that reaches from here to the Vatican.

Symons, 65, is the highest-ranking American Catholic to be forced out of church office for molestation of minors.

Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation Monday morning, moving with uncharacteristic speed to name Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg the temporary administrator over the more than 200,000 Catholics in the five-county diocese.

[Photo Captions - Bishop J. Keith Symons, shown celebrating Mass in 1994, has resigned after one of five sexual molestation victims came forward to an undisclosed church official. Looking to heal, 'My primary task at this time is to help all overcome the shock of the moment and to promote the healing of those who are hurting,' says the Most Rev. Robert Lynch (above), who will fill in for Bishop J. Keith Symons.]

Lynch would not disclose the names of the victims, and he called for any others who may have been molested by Symons to come forward and contact the church.

''As painful as it is for me and for others, I feel it important to make public the reason for my resignation,'' Symons said in a written statement. ''Early in my 40 years of priestly ministry, I was involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with minors.''

Lynch said the church became aware of Symons' abusive past five weeks ago when one of the victims came forward to an undisclosed church official. Symons admitted to assaulting that boy.

This past weekend, Lynch confronted him about other assaults, and Symons gave the names of four more victims.

''He claims strongly and vehemently that there are no victims in Palm Beach County,'' Lynch said. ''He has said these are the only ones. I want to believe him, but sometimes people with this disease are in such deep denial that they don't remember what they did.''

The middle-aged man who came forward to accuse his assailant told church officials he was abused by Symons for about two years. All the molested boys were parishioners, and all are believed to be former altar boys.

Lynch said Symons assured him he had not participated in sexual activities for the last 25 years.

''I want to believe that,'' Lynch said. ''But I don't know for sure.''

Symons did not attend the press conference at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach Gardens that made public his disgrace. Church officials said he would be sent to the St. Luke's treatment facility in Suitland, Md., where many priests have undergone therapy for their sexual abuses in recent years.

Criminal charges unlikely

''He'll be sent away for evaluation,'' Lynch said. ''The therapy protocol could be nine months to a year - even longer, depending on the depth of his disease. I don't know what his future as a priest is.''

Prosecutors and attorneys familiar with sexual abuse cases believe it unlikely that Symons could be held accountable in the courts for crimes that were committed four decades ago.

''Before 1972, we could not go after someone who molested a male because the language of the law made rape a capital offense but applied it only to female victims,'' said Assistant State Attorney Scott Cupp, head of the crimes against children unit at the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office. ''If these victims were over 11 years old, then the crime wouldn't be considered a capital felony, rather a life felony, and the statute of limitations would have run out.''

Lance Block, a West Palm Beach attorney who has tried civil cases against sex offenders, said the statute of limitations would be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

''Without doing any research on the specific case, I believe that this happened too long ago,'' Block said. ''The plaintiff has a duty to come forward within four years of the date of the incident.''

Block believes a case can be made only if a victim successfully argues recent recovery of repressed memory. ''That would be difficult,'' he said.

The Catholic Church has been increasingly plagued by incidents of priests forced to resign for molesting minors. But Symons' resignation was the first by a bishop in the United States, Lynch said. Two archbishops - Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe, N.M., and Eugene Marino of Atlanta - quit after admitting sexual affairs with adult women.

Symons' name has surfaced in a recent lawsuit involving a Catholic priest who was accused of molesting 10 boys.

Boynton abuse case settled

Rocco D'Angelo, now 75, a priest at St. Mark's Church in Boynton Beach in the 1960s, in court papers admitted being a molester. The Archdiocese of Miami promised victims' parents that D'Angelo would not be permitted to continue working with children, but he subsequently was transferred to St. Petersburg - where Symons served as diocesean chancellor. Victims charged that church officials moved D'Angelo to the Tampa Bay area, knew about his past and did nothing to monitor him.

Kevin Sidaway, a Lake Worth victim who is now 42, pursued criminal charges against D'Angelo on learning in 1993 he was still in the priesthood. Last week, the victims and the church reached an out-of-court settlement in a civil case, the terms of which were not disclosed.

Sidaway is continuing a separate action against D'Angelo, who is believed to be at the treatment facility in Maryland where Symons was sent.

'Something terrible'

Lynch said he wasn't aware of any links between D'Angelo's victims and Symons'. No known legal action is pending against Symons, church officials said.

Members of the congregation at St. Ignatius greeted the news with anger and disappointment, yet they also expressed faith in their church.

''It is a very big scar for the parish to have a bishop make such a mistake,'' said Marie Rollande Leclerc of Palm Beach Gardens, a retiree who makes altar clothes at the church. ''The priests are supposed to be examples for the kids and everyone. It was something terrible for the bishop to do.''

The Rev. Francis Lachiara, the diocese vicar of education, has been a friend to Symons for 39 years. He found out only Monday about the impending resignation.

''I spoke with him for about 20 minutes,'' Lachiara said. ''I was very saddened and disappointed. It's a terrible thing. We all need a lot of healing right now.''

Symons was made bishop of the Palm Beach diocese in July 1990, coming here after seven years in the Pensacola-Talla-hassee diocese. He replaced Bishop Thomas V. Daily, who was transferred to New York City after becoming the first spiritual leader of the newly created Palm Beach diocese in 1984.

During his tenure, Symons was known as an energetic leader who worked to bring the diverse community closer together. He started an annual Cultural Awareness Mass seven years ago, inviting priests from outside the diocese - usually minorities - to join him in celebrating the sacrament.

''He was an absolute workaholic,'' Lynch said. ''He had a great reputation and interest in helping young people.''

When Lynch met with Symons Saturday, he ordered him to be forthcoming about his past. ''I don't want any more surprises,'' Lynch said. ''Let me know what I face.''

'We're not gods'

Symons was at first ''depressed and disappointed'' when he was informed last week that the pope would accept his resignation effective 6 a.m. Tuesday, Lynch said. But then he seemed relieved.

''You just have the sense this ugly, dirty little secret has come out,'' Lynch said of the meeting.

Shortly after Symons became bishop here, he was asked what his goal would be for the sprawling diocese with 51 parishes, 17 schools and the growing populations of Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties.

He answered: ''It's important that I let people know the bishop is human.''

The paradox is that Symons may have achieved this in the most horrible way possible.

''If there's any level of good that comes from this,'' Lynch said, ''it shows people that we're not gods. Priests are flawed like all human beings.''

Lynch, who turned 57 last week, said he will set about the task this morning of restoring the faith within his new flock. He will celebrate Mass, and he will look to the highest power.

''If my faith is properly placed, it is not in human beings but in Jesus Christ,'' he said. ''Our faith is in God, and God has never abandoned his people."

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