Bishop Symons: Sinner and Saint

By Jeff Houck
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
June 7, 1998

Jim Symons takes a long draw off a Winston, stubs it out in an already full ashtray and thinks for a moment. He's sitting at the kitchen table in Largo, just north of St. Petersburg.

His wife, Elaine, gets up off the couch, checks their simmering beef and noodle dinner on the stove and disappears around a corner in their small living room.

The evening news is on the TV, but the sound is down because a visitor has stopped by to ask questions about Symons' brother.

"If . . . if . . ." he says, grappling for words a few seconds later. Smoke gushes from his mouth and lingers around his head. He tries again.

"If I had my life to live over . . . I'd want the same brother," he says in a soft tone, his voice draped with sadness, confusion and pride.

He says this almost to himself, as if speaking the words will answer all his questions and heal the unexpected rupture in his family's life.

It's been quite a week for him. On Wednesday, he picked up the newspaper to read that his brother, Joseph Keith Symons, had resigned after eight years as the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach and admitted to "inappropriate sexual behavior with minors" early in his priesthood.

The public admission came five weeks after a middle-aged man told church officials that Symons molested him as a boy. Last weekend, Symons revealed to the Most Rev. Robert Lynch, bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, the names of four more victims.

Symons was sent to an undisclosed location for treatment. Lynch is now the temporary administrator of the five-county diocese while the Vatican decides on a replacement. The names of the victims and the precise time period during which the abuse occurred has not been disclosed.

Those who know the soft-spoken 65-year-old Symons - friends, family and clergy - spent the rest of the week reconciling the man they loved and trusted and knew as a gentle comforter with this new image of a humbled, distraught, troubled soul who was forced to confess to horrific flaws.

For them, he is a man with an almost pathological devotion to work.

He is a man who remembers birthdays and anniversaries.

He is a man who cares for the sick and needy with a passion and devotion second only to what he felt for his beloved mother.

He's a man who prays almost as much as he breathes.

He's a man who not only gives inspirational books to friends but also takes the time to mark pages he thinks will boost their spiritual deficits.

He is a living history of Florida Catholicism, someone who helped shepherd the explosive growth from 80,000 faithful in 1945 to more than 2.5 million today.

But, now, he's also the highest ranking Catholic in U.S. history to leave his job for molesting a child.

Early on, Keith Symons knew he wanted to devote his life to Christ. While his older brother, Clayton, and younger brother, Jim, played baseball and games with the neighbors' kids outside his family's home in Champion, Mich., Keith often stayed indoors to read or study.

Their father, Harold, a Methodist with English heritage, worked long hours in the ore mines outside of Champion. "I don't ever remember him complaining about the long hours, though," Jim Symons said.

So it was up to their devout Roman Catholic mother, Ella, a woman of French and English descent, to raise the three boys. When she went to novena prayer vigils or Mass at the Catholic church at the top of the hill in Champion, Keith tagged along.

During World War II, the family moved to Detroit, where his father worked building tanks. In 1945, they visited a cousin in Miami and decided to make a new home there.

Keith graduated from Sts. Peter and Paul High School in Miami in 1949. At age 17, he studied for the priesthood, first at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Conn., and then at St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore, where he became one of the youngest to study there. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Mary's in 1954, followed by a Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1956.

Because of his age, the seminary required him to study for an extra year to make sure he was committed to his religious calling. He was ordained to the priesthood in Miami in 1958 and became the assistant chancellor to the bishop of St. Augustine, which was the only diocese in the state at that time. Today, there are seven dioceses.

But back then, it often meant driving hundreds of miles each weekend, traversing rickety bridges, dodging wayward cows and enduring dusty, bumpy back roads to celebrate Mass at parishes throughout the state that had no priests. Of the few things he brags about himself, one of them is that he can go anywhere in Florida without a road map.

"For as long as I can remember, he always wanted to become a priest," Jim Symons recalled. "Even to this day, he constantly reads the Bible. I joke that his knees must be 2 inches thick, because he's down praying constantly."

Symons was first assigned for a short stint as assistant pastor at St. Monika's in Palatka. The demand for priests at that time is evident in his duties; by the end of 1959, he served at least six additional parishes.

"He was crazy about Florida," his brother Jim said. "Loved the weather, loved the people, everything. Just fell in love with it all."

Except for a four-year span he spent serving parishes in Leesburg and Bushnell in the early 1960s, Symons spent most of his time from 1960 to 1971 in the Tampa Bay area.

But in 1971, he was tapped to work as vicar general and chancellor for Bishop Charles B. McLaughlin in the burgeoning Diocese of St. Petersburg. The job included running the administrative offices, or chancery, as well as serving as McLaughlin's right hand man at all times.

Meticulous by nature - a person who rarely had a stray thread on his clothing, much less a paper out of line on his desk - Symons seemed born to do the job. He and McLaughlin, though, made an unlikely team.

"We called Bishop McLaughlin 'Hurricane Charlie,' " joked Bishop Emeritus W. Thomas Larkin, who was picked by the Vatican as McLaughlin's successor after he died in office in late 1978. "He was a man who who never hid his feelings."

McLaughlin, a pilot from the Bronx who often flew to events around the diocese, was a commanding presence, forceful in voice and demeanor, someone always on the go. Symons was undemonstrative and low volume, choosing to speak with loyalty and compassionate deeds as much as with words.

Those deeds included efforts to improve the diocese's outreach to the sick and the elderly. It was Symons who suggested in 1967 that Mass be broadcast weekly so shut-ins could continue to feel a connection with the liturgy and their faith. In 1974, he followed that with a televised Mass for the deaf, both broadcast on WTVT-Channel 13.

"He's a great people person," Larkin said. Symons continued to serve as chancellor for Larkin until being named auxiliary bishop in March 1981. The enhanced role carried the bishop's title, but he still was subordinate to Larkin.

"He was a micromanager and worked all the time," Larkin said. "He was just going, going, going all the time. He didn't have hobbies or play golf. I couldn't even get him to take a vacation or days off. I knew that I could leave the chancery and go out about the diocese and he would take care of everything. He never left anything half done."

Part of Symons' duties was to coordinate the details of Masses and ceremonies conducted by McLaughlin and Larkin. William Tapp, a longtime musical director at the Cathedral of St. Jude in St. Petersburg, dealt with Symons frequently since the bishops use the cathedral to celebrate the holiest of ceremonies.

"It's funny you called," Tapp said, his voice laced with sadness. "About five minutes ago I picked up a prayer book he had given me. In it he made notes about certain feast days and what each day represents - not just which saint went with which day."

Symons' knowledge about the nuances of each Mass was comprehensive, Tapp said. He knew what piece of music was supposed to play at a certain moment. He knew where each altar boy was to be placed during the service and what the role of each would be.

During Holy Week, when the grueling pace of services and the pressure to honor the solemnity of each Mass and vigil leading to Easter can frazzle nerves, Symons was a portrait of calm, Tapp said.

"I always felt well prepared with him there," he said.

Joe Corsetti, hired by Symons in 1976 to be an assistant in the diocese's finance department, remembered a similar level of organization he witnessed during his job interview.

"Personally, he was impeccable," said Corsetti, who today is assistant director of finance. "His desk was impeccable. Not a thing out of order."

Symons always had time to speak to co-workers, he said, and regularly celebrated Mass in the chancery for staff members.

At one point when Corsetti and his wife, Denise, were struggling to cope with their inability to conceive a child, Symons paid extra attention.

"He would send cards and prayers, and he'd drop by the house when he had the time to visit," he said.

As an example of Symons' attention to detail and his depth of loyalty to the bishop, Corsetti recalled the time after McLaughlin's death when the diocese was waiting for a letter telling them who the next bishop would be.

Symons realized that the mail had been delivered on Saturday, so he went to the office to scan it for the papal seal. Only there was no mail bag. The cleaning service had pitched it into the trash. Symons went out behind the chancery with Corsetti to rummage through the trash bin, but a crew had already hauled the garbage away.

So the two tracked down the garbage hauler and learned the truck was on its way to the landfill. Both fetched pitchforks and beat the truck to the dump. Once there, they combed through the heaps of stinking garbage and found the mail bag. They opened it up. No letter. A few days later, the letter naming Larkin arrived in the normal mail.

Symons' work in the chancery, both as an assistant and as bishop, only enhanced the love and pride felt by his mother. Ella Symons lived close to him in a duplex she owned near his church, St. Catherine of Siena, in Largo, where he was in residence while serving Bishops McLaughlin and Larkin. (Symons' father died in 1968.)

She would visit him occasionally at the chancery in St. Petersburg, and he would proudly show her off to staff members.

One time, she called him from her Catholic nursing home in northeast St. Petersburg. Figuring something must be wrong, Symons rushed to take her call.

"The ducks," she said, "the ducks in the pond here have had babies."

Mother and son shared a dry, understated wit as well. A short time before Ella Symons died in 1982, she asked her son if he would conduct her funeral. He told her he wasn't sure that would be possible but that he'd check.

"Well, if you can't do it, who the heck would?" Jim Symons remembered her joking. Not long after, she passed away because of heart problems.

"You know, after the funeral, I told him it was a shame, especially for him. I lost a mother, but he lost a friend and a mother," Jim said. "They were so close."

Without prompting, the youngest brother mutters, "Thank goodness my mother's not around to see all this."

As a reward for his efficiency, loyalty and dedication, Symons was named auxiliary bishop in St. Petersburg in 1981. Two years later he was chosen bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.

During his seven years there, he was known for his tireless travel to parishes and schools throughout the Panhandle. It's a diocese with two cathedrals, one in Pensacola, the other across the street from Florida State University's campus in Tallahassee. Such a division kept him on the road almost nonstop.

Symons was "a nice guy" but "not a convivial guy. He did not have the greatest personality in the world," but he was good to work for, said Thomas Horkan, who as the former executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference worked under Symons and other Florida bishops.

"He was very direct. You could talk to him and get an answer," Horkan said. And, he said, when new issues would arise, Symons was a quick study.

Symons' successor in the Panhandle, Bishop John H. Ricard, issued a statement last week praising Symons' hard work there and urging prayer for him.

"I am ready to assist anyone who has been hurt by Bishop Symons," Ricard's statement continues. "If they would please contact me, I wish to assure them that any contact made to the diocese will be held confidential."

In June 1990, Symons was transferred to the Diocese of Palm Beach, overseeing churches and schools in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties. The job brought a $ 5.4 million annual budget to administer, 1,000 clergy, teachers and other workers to manage, and 51 parishes to direct, as well as schools, missions, outreach centers and shelters.

His first five years on the job, the diocese spent $ 75 million on renovation and construction. And Symons, micromanager that he is, claims to have signed every document.

"I'm just afraid all his good work and accomplishments will be forgotten because of this," Larkin said. "What he did in Palm Beach was a testament to his dedication."

Few have spoken to Symons since he was sent away for treatment last week, and neither the Palm Beach nor St. Petersburg dioceses have disclosed his location.

Even his brothers don't know where he is. Jim Symons, who spoke frequently with Symons by phone and last saw him a few weeks ago at the celebration of his 40th anniversary of entering the priesthood, said he hasn't talked with him since the news broke Tuesday.

Neither has his brother Clayton, who lives in Michigan, nor has any of the eight nephews and nieces.

Symons' old boss, Bishop Larkin, said he called Symons before Symons left the area.

"He was devastated about all this. He said that this all happened 35 years ago and that he's tried to be a good priest since then. He wasn't crying, but he was really shaken up about it all."

Maybe there is no reconciling J. Keith Symons the bishop, brother and son with J. Keith Symons the shamed abuser.

Maybe it's easier to try to accept that two men wore his clerical collar: one a healer, the other a flawed soul haunted by the commission of acts unacceptable under any condition, much less when performed by a man of God.

Bishop Lynch, as well as the heads of dioceses where Symons served, have asked that anyone who was abused come forward.

Since Tuesday's resignation - prompted by one man's allegations five weeks ago - two more men have told church officials they too were molested by Symons, bringing the number to three, according to Father Michael Edwards, the Diocese of Palm Beach spokesman, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported last week. Edwards did not return repeated phone calls Thursday or Friday.

None of the five men Symons acknowledged molesting have been identified, and it is not known how or when the two latest victims approached church officials.

Symons has asked for prayers and forgiveness from the faithful and from his victims. Friends and family say all they can do is pray.

But from the tone of comments by those who know Symons well, it is difficult to imagine there will be answers to all the questions anytime soon.

Bishop Lynch, after being assured by Symons that the activities ceased 25 years ago: "I want to believe that, but I don't know for sure."

Larkin, when asked if he had known about the abuses: "I had no idea. Lord no. If I had, I would have had to limit him in some capacity. You'd have to after something like that."

Joe Corsetti, when asked if anyone could have foreseen this: "I would rank him in the top three priests that I've ever known. If someone gave me 50 guesses to figure out who some bad news was going to be about that day, I would not have figured it was him in 50 guesses."

William Tapp, while recalling the meticulousness of his family's dear friend: "He was always under control . . . well . . . I thought he was under control."

And from Jim Symons, who keeps his brother's first official portrait as bishop high on a living room wall alongside a painting of their mother: "If he's asked God for forgiveness, he knows in his heart he'll be forgiven."


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