Vol. 1, No. 2
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
On the Beat: "Irreligion" in Denmark
The Oklahoman's Bible Belt
Controversy II: Handling Pedophilia
by Mark SilkOn 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
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
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
But outside south and central Florida, the news media took little
notice. The New York Times ran the APs 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 IIs acceptance of Symons resignation. Far from minimizing the
malfeasance as long past and limited in scope, he expressed only conditional support for
his departed colleagues 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 dont 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
dont 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 dont 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 Lynchs handling of the crisis as
"impressive" and the Miami Herald called the Churchs 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
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
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 countrys 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 Posts
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 worlds 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 newspapers "classy coverage and layout" of
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 Attorneys 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
nations media culture, priest pedophilia remains a substantial crisis for
Americas 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
Editors take note.