Fall 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A New Establishment?

Race and Disgrace

Submission in Salt Lake

Church, Lies, and Polling Data

Catholic Controversy I:  Jesus Off Broadway

Catholic Controversy III:  Philadelphia Story

On the Beat:  "Irreligion" in Denmark

The Oklahoman's Bible Belt

Catholic Controversy II: Handling Pedophilia

by Mark Silk

On June 2, reporters were summoned to a press conference at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach. There, Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg announced the resignation of the Bishop of Palm Beach, 65-year-old Joseph Keith Symons, for having sexually molested five teenaged boys during his earlier career as a priest.

Although Symons himself had departed for an undisclosed location, he left behind a letter admitting "inappropriate sexual behavior with minors," apologizing to those he had hurt, and asking for the prayers of the faithful. "At some other time," he wrote, "I hope the people of God in the Church of Palm Beach will be able to appreciate what I have attempted to accomplish while serving as your bishop."

In the early 1990s, affairs with adult women had led to the resignations of Archbishops Eugene Marino of Atlanta and Robert Sanchez of Albuquerque, but never had so high-ranking an American Catholic cleric been forced to leave office as an admitted pedophile. In the first eight days, the Palm Beach Post devoted 15 news stories, two columns, and an editorial to the resignation. Significant coverage also appeared in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Miami Herald.

But outside south and central Florida, the news media took little notice. The New York Times ran the AP’s initial news story and a report on diocesan reaction by its own Florida correspondent; and brief accounts appeared in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the Chicago Tribune, and the Seattle Times. After a couple of notorious cases in the mid-1980s, priest-pedophilia began to receive widespread and sensational attention from newspapers, newsmagazines, and television. Why, in 1998, was it almost as if nothing had happened?

For one thing, the circumstances did not lend themselves to extended coverage. Neither the 53-year-old former altar boy who first came forward nor any of the other victims filed lawsuits or were ever publicly identified. Unlike the best known priest-pedophile cases, there was no sequence of legal proceedings, of claims and counterclaims, to allow the coverage to build. The first-day resignation story was, in effect, the denouement.

Credit for handling the case went to Lynch, a former general secretary of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, who acted with dispatch and displayed a degree of public candor unprecedented for high Church officials in such matters. He explained to reporters that it had taken five weeks from his receiving the complaint to securing Pope John Paul II’s acceptance of Symons’ resignation. Far from minimizing the malfeasance as long past and limited in scope, he expressed only conditional support for his departed colleague’s version of events.

"He has said these are the only ones," Lynch said. "I want to believe him, but sometimes people with this disease are in such deep denial that they don’t remember what they did." As for Symons’ claim that he had not participated in sexual activities for 25 years: "I want to believe that. But I don’t know for sure."

Lynch, who was given responsibility for running the Palm Beach diocese until a new bishop could be appointed, also invited anyone else who might have been abused by Symons to come forward-an invitation that was reiterated by Bishop John Ricard of the Tallahassee-Pensacola diocese, where the reported molestation had taken place.

Such openness did not go down well in some ecclesiastical quarters. "Lynch got a tremendous amount of criticism from priests here in south Florida for saying we don’t know how many victims there were," recalled Miami Herald religion writer April Witt. "I was shocked at what priests were saying in private conversations. That tells me a lot about the culture."

But the off-the-record criticism never made it into the papers-where, not surprisingly, the reaction was different. The Palm Beach Post mildly chastised the Church for not removing Symons more quickly than it had. The Sun-Sentinal pointed out that while the Church had responded well thus far, it would need to do better than previously in making sure the perpetrator never again worked around children. But the Tampa Tribune simply celebrated Lynch’s handling of the crisis as "impressive" and the Miami Herald called the Church’s openness "refreshing." Thus, in stark contrast to many another pedophile-priest story, the Church came away with the best it could have hoped for: limited coverage of the offender and general approval of itself.

A quick resolution and official candor do not suffice, however, to explain the lack of national media attention to the Symons story. Neither characterized the recent case of a flagrantly abusive Dallas priest, Rudolph Kos, yet this also drew relatively little national attention, and that despite the fact that a 1997 jury award of $120 million (later reduced to $23.4 million) threatened to bankrupt the entire Dallas archdiocese.

If even extraordinary priest-pedophile stories are of minor interest to the American news media these days, it can only be because the issue of priest pedophilia has lost salience nationwide. In his 1995 study, Pedophiles and Priests, Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University treats the "pedophile priest crisis" as a contemporary moral panic that captured the media spotlight out of proportion to its purported significance. According to Jenkins, the evidence indicates that pedophilia among Catholic priests is no more common than among clergy of other faiths, or in the population at large.

Concern about pedophile priests was part of the more general contemporaneous panic over sexual abuse of children, but was heightened by specifically Catholic factors. Liberal Catholics seized on publicized cases as a failure of the institutional church, fixing responsibility on its continued embrace of clerical celibacy. Conservatives took priest-pedophilia as yet another proof of post-Vatican II laxity, and demanded that the Church take a tougher line on homosexuality.

The "crisis" reached the peak of its trajectory in late 1993 when a young man falsely leveled a molestation charge against the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, then the country’s most important Catholic prelate. The man recanted, but only after several months of intense and overwrought media attention, which itself became the object of considerable criticism. The Bernardin fiasco seems to have brought the panic under control, and left editors with a certain skittishness about pedophile-priest stories outside their own backyard. By 1996, stories in the national news media about priest pedophiles had declined dramatically.

In Palm Beach, where there was no question about Symons’ resignation being big news, the coverage ranged widely over the human dimensions of the story and the broader cultural and religious issues. The Post provided its readers with, among other things, an insightful profile of Symons himself, a touching interview with Symons’ brother, and sensitive accounts of how the resignation affected local clergy and laity; as well as reaction from members of groups representing those abused by priests, a balanced examination of the celibacy question, and a catalogue of the most significant priest-pedophile cases of the past decade. Lead writer Dan Moffett reported on the situation in New Mexico, "ground zero" of priest pedophilia thanks to the reassignment there of many pedophile priests once sent to recover at a now defunct sanitarium northwest of Albuquerque.

As far as can be told, Catholics found little to object to in the Post’s coverage. To be sure, Rick Hinshaw, director of communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the private watchdog agency in New York, criticized a Post editorial suggestion that the pope reexamine the idea of an all-male, celibate priesthood, and took religion writer Steve Gushee to task for at one point calling the Church "the world’s oldest totalitarian state and the quintessential old boys’ club." But local reaction seems better reflected in a letter from a former priest and newspaper man who praised the newspaper’s "classy coverage and layout" of the story.

In a word, by the end of June the entire Symons affair-lock, stock, and media-seemed to be wrapped up to the satisfaction of just about everybody. But then, on July 30, Twila Decker of the St. Peterburg Times reported, on the basis of records released by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s office, that Symons’ initial accuser had actually brought the molestation to the attention of Church authorities three years earlier than previously supposed. Rather than seek Symons’ ouster, the former bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, John M. Smith, arranged a meeting between the man and Symons, at which Symons admitted the molestation, (falsely) denied molesting other youths, and promised to get counseling.

Lynch immediately announced that he was appointing a retired judge to look into how the 1995 complaint was handled in order to "restore some credibility to the diocese." He said that he himself had learned of the meeting between Symons and his victim just days before Symons resigned-which left open the question of why he had made no mention of it in his initial statement. "What other little details have church leaders failed to mention?" asked Sun-Sentinel columnist John Grogan.

The unsettling coda is a reminder that, whatever its salience in the nation’s media culture, priest pedophilia remains a substantial crisis for America’s largest religious body. In a June 10 Palm Beach Post article dealing with new research on the subject, Thomas Plante, an associate professor of psychology at Jesuit-founded Santa Clara University, said the consensus of experts was that there will "be more of these cases involving people high in the Catholic hierarchy."

Editors take note.