Catholic Bishop Resigns after Admitting to Sexual Abuse of Children

By Lori Rozsa and April Witt
Miami Herald
June 2, 1998

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. _ The Bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., a priest for 40 years who has served in every diocese in Florida, resigned Tuesday after admitting that he molested five boys four decades ago.

Joseph Keith Symons, 65, head of the five-county Diocese of Palm Beach, became the first American bishop to resign because of sexual abuse of children, said Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg. Lynch is temporarily taking over the Palm Beach Diocese.

Church officials learned of the abuse five weeks ago when a man in his 50s approached a Florida priest and said Symons had molested him when he was 13, and continued the abuse for three years.

The priest contacted Symons and John C. Favalora, Archbishop of Miami, at the same time, Lynch said.

At first, Symons admitted to molesting one boy. In the past few days, Lynch said, Symons said there were four others. At least one was an altar boy.

Lynch said the man who came forward had lived with the "dirty secret" for years.

"There was anger on top of anger, and finally, something snapped, and he came forward in honesty," Lynch said of the victim. "He clearly was hurting still."

Lynch would not release details of the victims.

"I do not wish to reveal the names or locations of the victims," Lynch said. "At the request of at least one victim, we agreed not to bring any further embarrassment or pain to that person. (Symons) claims strongly and vehemently there are no victims in Palm Beach, no victims in Tallahassee, and no victims in St. Petersburg.' '

Symons admitted to the conduct, but assured Lynch and others it hadn't happened again "in the past 25 to 35 years," Lynch said at a news conference Tuesday at the Cathedral Center of St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Palm Beach Gardens. The center is the headquarters of the Palm Beach Diocese.

"I think the relationship began as a priest and a young kid," he said. "There was a level of trust because the adult was a priest."

After several years of sexually abusing boys, Symons consulted another priest who was his spiritual adviser, Lynch said. That counselor told Symons to abstain from alcohol and to be chaste. Symons maintains he has not abused anyone else in at least 25 years, Lynch said.

"I want to believe him," Lynch said candidly. "But sometimes (pedophiles) are in such deep denial they don't remember what they did."

Lynch said he doesn't fault the spiritual adviser for not having forced Symons to seek help when he first confessed to the molestation.

"Pedophilia wasn't even in the psychological manuals when this abuse happened," Lynch said. "The old theory was make a good confession and sin no more. We never realized it was a disease."

Symons was sent out of state to a church-ordered treatment program before the resignation was made public at the Vatican in Rome and the Diocese offices in Palm Beach Gardens.

In a news release faxed to news bureaus soon after the Vatican announced his resignation, Symons tried to explain himself.

"As painful as it is for me and will be for others, I feel it important to make public the reason for my resignation," Symons wrote. "Early in my 40 years of priestly ministry, I was involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with minors. Realizing the gravity of my past actions, I have in succeeding years tried to live my promises of celibacy and chastity and have immersed myself in my ministry as priest and as bishop."

Symons said he has thought daily about what he did.

"I have prayed each day for these persons and their families. It is a memory with which we have lived far too long. I apologize to all whom I have hurt in any way and if, by this action, they might seek spiritual, emotional, and psychological comfort and assistance, then this painful moment for the Church and me may prove to be beneficial."

Lynch said no criminal or civil charges or lawsuits have been filed against Symons or the church stemming from these incidents.

Symons is the third U.S. bishop in a decade who is openly acknowledged to have resigned because of sexual misconduct, though the other two were with adult women.

Former Sante Fe, N.M., Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez quit in March 1993 after he was accused of having had sex with at least five young women during the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1990, then Atlanta Archbishop Eugene Marino resigned, citing health reasons. But church officials later acknowledged that he quit over a two-year intimate affair he had with an adult woman.

Symons came to the Palm Beach Diocese as bishop in 1990. He had been bishop in the Florida Panhandle since 1983. He was ordained in Miami in 1958 after attending Saints Peter and Paul High School in Miami, and the St. Thomas Seminary in Connecticut and St. Mary Seminary in Maryland. His career as bishop is relatively undistinguished. In the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese, he gained a reputation for traveling extensively to the various parishes _ logging 40,000 miles a year on his van for church travel _ and for his commitment to education.

In the Palm Beach Diocese, Symons focused on administrative duties _ the diocese, which serves 220,000 Catholics, has an operating budget of nearly $ 6 million. About 1,000 clergy, teachers, and others worked under his authority.

Symons also concentrated on recruiting young people to the church, said Rev. Michael Edwards, a spokesman for the diocese. He went to roller skating parties, and donned skates, he invited young people to his house, he attended youth conventions with them.

"He was a very kind, very compassionate, soft-spoken man," Edwards said. During his tenure in Palm Beach, Symons concentrated on building the infrastructure of churches and schools in his diocese. He also earned the ire of some of his priests there by bringing in priests from outside the diocese as key advisers.

Along with his brother bishops in the Florida Catholic Conference, Symons signed statements decrying both abortion and capital punishment, supporting Catholic education and calling for social justice for refugees and migrant workers.

But he has had a close brush with another priest accused of pedophilia. The Rev. Rocco Charles D'Angelo was accused by parents and children in Boynton Beach of abusing young boys. Symons paid the mother of one of the boys for therapy sessions for her son, according to a 1996 article in the Palm Beach Post.

Symons left the cash in envelopes at the diocesan office.

Lynch said while Symons assured him there were no more victims than the five he has admitted to molesting, if others have been hurt by Symons, they should come forward.

"Sometimes, with this disease, the person won't even remember," Lynch said. "If there is anyone hurting who is not known to us, please go to one of our churches. Tell us."


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