Catholic Church Forced to Address Sexual Abuse Cases

By Marian Dozier, Scott Gold, James D. Davis, Sally Kestin, David Nitkin and Stacey Singer
Sun-Sentinel [Fort Lauderdale FL]
June 5, 1998

Maybe it happened here, at St. Catherine of Siena, where a humble mosaic of Jesus rising toward heaven watches over the altar.

Perhaps it was in St. Petersburg, behind the brass doors of St. Mary Our Lady of Grace. Or possibly at St. Paul's in Leesburg. Or Sacred Heart Church in Pinellas Park.

What connects these churches is more than their religion. They were all previous stops in the early ministry of Bishop Joseph Keith Symons, who resigned on Tuesday after confessing to molesting five boys early in his 40-year career.

Two more of those boys _ now middle-aged men _ have since come forward, bringing to three the number of victims with whom contact has been made, Father Michael Edwards, spokesman for the Diocese of Palm Beach, said on Thursday.

Symons told St. Petersburg Bishop Robert Lynch there were no victims during his time in Pensacola, Tallahassee or Palm Beach County, where he worked during the later part of his religious career.

Symons spent the first two decades of his career in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where he may have committed the deeds of his "dirty, little secret," as Lynch, Symons' temporary replacement, called Symons' activities earlier this week.

The oft-asked question: How was Symons able to keep his pedophilia secret for so long? The answer lies, some suggest, in a culture of silence and tradition in a 2,000-year-old church that has at its heart the notion of the confessional, where sins are unveiled and most are blessed away.

At some point after molesting the boys, Symons confessed to his spiritual adviser. The men prayed. And Symons did as told, abstaining from alcohol and remaining chaste, Lynch said. He went on to a stellar ministerial career, and told Lynch he never molested another boy.

Still, other cases within Florida and across the country show troubled priests transferred quietly from diocese to diocese, with church leaders' knowledge of _ and in apparent duplicity with _ their secret sin.

Once discovered, victims say the church's feet would turn to clay.

Last year, Richard Watts, of Pensacola, accused Father Richard Castillo of St. Thomas the Apostle in Quincy, Fla., of molesting him eight years earlier.

The Diocese of Tallahassee-Pensacola investigated, but said it could not corroborate the story.

That news infuriated two Tallahassee brothers, who said they had told investigating priests that they, too, had been abused by Castillo years earlier, but their stories were ignored.

"I was livid. I just knew they were going to cover this up," one of the brothers told the Pensacola News-Journal last year. In December, Castillo admitted to molesting four teen-agers, and was sent out of state for counseling.

"The secrecy was stupid, insensitive, wrong from the very beginning," said Rev. Richard McCormick, a moral theologian at Notre Dame University. "The good name of the institution took precedence over the victims."

The reasons are complex. In part, church leaders say they did not know decades ago that pedophilia was a disease, rather than bad behavior that could be corrected through prayer and a transfer.

Priests who knew about troubled colleagues had a lot to lose _ the church provides their food, lodging, medical care and retirement benefits _ if they blew the whistle.

"And when they do, the church tries not to handle it," said Gary Hayes, a priest in the diocese of Owensboro, Ky. "Many (church leaders) blame the victim."

Yet the church's response to pedophilia in many ways mirrors that of a society that has only recently begun to openly confront sexual abuse.

"We refused to face this problem. Who wants to believe this happens?" said Nicholas Groth, a retired psychologist in Orlando and a nationally-known author on sex abuse. "I don't think (the church has) done any better or worse than any other group in addressing this."

But that culture is changing, experts and priests say, as the church is relentlessly hit by lawsuits and highly publicized, compromising situations.

The change began as early as 1965, when Vatican II instituted a series of corrective actions for priests to take when they discover a brother who has broken his vows, said Louis Guerin, priest of St. Lucy's in Highland Beach.

And as part of a years-long application process, seminaries have for about 20 years required deep psychological and personality testing _ an effort to weed out problem priests at the front end.

Individual dioceses also have changed. The Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese, reacting to a series of sex-related incidents, created a response team to investigate complaints.

The swift removal of Symons is a distinct example of the church's changing ways, priests say. But it takes time to change the culture of a centuries-old bureaucracy, and the perception of conspiracy remains.

"The reason the church is responding now is because victims are coming forward," said Kevin Sidaway, who was molested in 1967 by Rocco D'Angelo, formerly a priest at St. Mark's in Boynton Beach. "They've been cornered."

Sidaway, who settled a lawsuit against the Palm Beach Diocese for an undisclosed amount last week, was an 11-year-old altar boy. When his parents learned he had been sexually abused for three weeks, he said his father revealed that he, too, was raped as a boy by his priest.

But Sidaway's grandmother, from a far earlier era, reacted differently.

"She told my father, I'll beat you to within an inch of your life if you ever mention this again," Sidaway recalled on Thursday.

One former priest in Broward County, who left the Catholic church so he could get married and now is an Episcopal priest, said he knows that church leaders are aware of sexual relationships involving priests. Still, most priests would respond as did Timothy Lynch, priest of St. Mary Immaculata in West Palm Beach, no relation to Robert Lynch.

"I categorically deny there's a conspiracy of silence," he said. "Did a whole bunch of priests know that Bishop Symons was carrying around this burden? Not at all. There was complete shock."

When problems do occur, they have to be cleaned up. At least twice, the man called in was Lynch. He was dispatched here to help the 99 priests and 220,000 Catholics of the Palm Beach diocese heal. And when he was ordained as head of the St. Petersburg diocese in 1996, he said a main objective was to cure the diocese of sexual deviance among priests.

He was busy: a Safety Harbor priest who admitted he had been secretly married for 15 years; a priest in Lutz who used $ 200,000 in church funds to pay off a lover; and the long tale of Rocco D'Angelo, who was transferred from the Miami archdiocese to Palm Beach, and finally to St. Petersburg _ each time with the broken promise that he would never work around children again.

Hours after Symons' resignation on Tuesday, Lynch said the very knowledge of the startling number of sex-related cases against the church is the result of "a closed church that is now open."

Staff Writers James D. Davis, Sally Kestin, David Nitkin and Stacey Singer contributed to this report.


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