Bishop Symons Resigns
On June 2, 1998, Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg took the podium at a press conference staged at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach to announce the resignation of his colleague, Bishop Joseph Symons. The resignation followed the revelation that Symons had molested at least five teenage boys during the early years of his priesthood. Pope John Paul II accepted Symons’ resignation and assigned Lynch the role of Apostolic Administrator of Palm Beach until a successor to Symons was selected.
In his introductory remarks at the press conference, Lynch announced that Symons had entered into a program of “evaluation and treatment” at an undisclosed location. Church officials could not squirrel Symons away at St. Luke’s Institute because the bishop’s old friend Fr. Rocco D’Angeleo had taken up residency there. So they sent Symons back to his native Michigan where he took up temporary residence at a convent somewhere in the DeWitt area near Lansing.
Within a year, the disgraced Symons was back in circulation in the DeWitt area. At the request of Bishop Carl F. Mengeling of Lansing, Symons presented a daylong program of prayer and meditation on the Virgin Mary at the St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt. Apparently, Mengeling failed to see the grotesque irony of his actions.
Let us return to the Lynch press conference.
Bishop Lynch read a prepared text from Symons in which he (Symons) admitted to “inappropriate sexual behavior with minors.” He offered his apologies to those he had hurt and asked for the prayers of the faithful for the unfaithful. Typical of the ego-centered mentality of homosexuals, Symons wrote, “At some other time, I hope the People of God in the Church in Palm Beach will be able to appreciate what I have attempted to accomplish while serving as your bishop.”
Lynch told reporters that Symons told him that he had not molested anyone in the last 25 years, that is from 1973 onwards, but Lynch added: “I want to believe him, but sometimes people with this disease are in such deep denial that they don’t remember what they did.” Lynch admitted “we don’t know how many victims there were,” but he said both he and Bishop John Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee where the reported molestations had taken place, invited anyone else who had been molested by Symons to come forward.
Following the press conference, the Palm Beach Post reported for eight consecutive days on the Symons scandal. Articles on Symons’ resignation were also covered by the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, St Petersburg Times, and Miami Herald. A brief mention of Symons’ resignation also appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic Journal and Constitution, Chicago Tribune and Seattle Times.
However, according to writer Mark Silk, the Symons resignation attracted little national media attention outside of Florida because neither the original accuser, a 53-year-old man who told his priest that he had been molested by Symons when he was a 13-year-old altar boy, nor the other alleged victims had ever filed a lawsuit or taken legal action against Symons or the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Thus the issue was dead in the water with Bishop Lynch’s announcement that Symons had stepped down from his office.
Bishop Lynch got the credit for the quick defusing of the Symons scandal. The local media praised his candor and honesty. The Tampa Tribune called his handling of the case “impressive” and the Miami Herald hailed the Church’s new openness as “refreshing.” According to Silk, Lynch told 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.
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
The only thing wrong with this picture perfect conclusion is that it is largely untrue.
According to Silk, Twila Decker of the St. Petersburg Times reported on July 30, 1998 that Symons’ initial accuser had actually brought the molestation to the attention of Church authorities three years earlier than previously supposed. Decker based her charge on the records released by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s office. Rather than immediately seeking Symons’ ouster, the former bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, John M. Smith, arranged a meeting between the initial accuser and Symons. At the meeting, Bishop Symons admitted the molestation, but lied about not engaging in any other incidents of sex abuse with minors. He promised to get counseling. The initial victim was paid off as were the later victims that came forward and the court records were sealed.
Lynch was appointed to Bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg on December 5, 1995. Apparently Symons did not tell Lynch about the sex abuse settlement when he took over the diocese. Bishop John Ricard did not take over the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee from Bishop John Smith (who had in the meantime been appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Trenton) until January 1997. Smith, a protégé of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, apparently forgot to tell Ricard about the Symons settlement.
When the Decker story broke, Bishop 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” (and presumably himself). Lynch said that he himself had learned of the meeting between Symons and his victim just days before Symons resigned. This meant that he knew about the settlement with Symons’ victims prior to the June 2 press conference. Why hadn’t he revealed the truth then? As John Grogan, columnist for the Sun-Sentinel quipped, “What other little details have church leaders failed to mention?”
Lynch - A Modernist Bishop
That the pope selected Bishop Lynch as the temporary administrator and spokesman for the beleaguered Diocese of Palm Beach is not surprising. Lynch is an Establishment figure in AmChurch who made his reputation at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/ U.S. Catholic Conference as a man who gets a job done. He served as Associate General Secretary of the NCCB/USCC from 1984 to 1989 and as General Secretary from 1989 to 1995. His signature document is “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish” that was approved by the Catholic bishops at their November 1993 annual meeting.
A West Virginia boy, born and bred, Lynch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio in May 1963 and his Master of Divinity degree from Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. in May 1978. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami on May 13, 1978, at the age of 37 and served at St. James in North Miami and as pastor at St. Mark’s in Fort Lauderdale. He was named the fourth Bishop of St. Petersburg on December 5, 1995. The appointment was no surprise, the post of General Secretary of the NCCB/USCC has long been recognized as a springboard for ecclesiastical advancement in AmChurch.
Bishop Lynch accelerated the rate of “modernization” of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Traditional Catholics report that he radically reduced the practice of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in local parishes and he enthusiastically promoted sex instruction in Catholic schools. He permitted the continuance of Dignity-like Masses for homosexuals and welcomed New Ways Ministry into the diocese. In the horrific case of hospitalized Terri Schindler Schiavo, whose adulterous husband starved her to death, Lynch neither defended the young woman’s right to food and water or her right to Holy Communion as a baptized Catholic, one of the young woman’s few consolations in this world.
Bishop Robert Lynch Manages His Own Crisis
On March 22, 2002, the Diocese of St. Petersburg was hit by more bad news. Bishop Lynch had called an impromptu press conference to deny charges that he had sexually harassed a former head of communications for the diocese. Lynch decided to call the news conference after he heard that the Tampa Tribune was just about to break the story. The 60-year-old bishop said the allegations against him were “unsubstantiated,” which is not to say they were not true.
“I have faithfully and fully lived the celibate vow since the day of ordination,” Lynch said. He told reporters gathered at the press conference that he had asked his superiors (actually they were his subordinates) to review the charges against him because of the intense media scrutiny of sexual misconduct by Catholic clergy.
The sexual misconduct charge against Lynch involved former diocesan employee Bill Urbanski, 42, who reported to Church officials that Lynch had sexually harassed him on numerous occasions.
Church officials said they offered Urbanski another job within the diocese but away from Bishop Lynch in September 2002, but Urbanski turned down the offer. Instead, he was given a $100,000 severance package after he agreed not to file a lawsuit. Actually, the figure is closer to $150,000 if the extended salary payment that qualified Urbanski for vested pension benefits is included.
The entire operation was carried out in almost total secrecy. Lynch’s three loyal subordinates – diocesan attorney, Joseph DiVito, Vicar General Msgr. Brendan Muldoon, and Chancellor Msgr. Robert Gibbons - “reviewed” the complaint against their boss. Only Archbishop John Favalora in Miami was notified of the complaint. Nothing was put in writing. Nevertheless, church officials denied that the payment was “hush money.” “The diocese does not buy silence in St. Petersburg,” said attorney DiVito. He explained that the money came from parishioners, bequeaths, investments and unrestricted accounts. “No funds earmarked for the ministry were used,” DiVito said.
When contacted by the press for a statement, Urbanski said the public revelation had caught him by surprise and he was not prepared to discuss it at this time.
Later, Bishop Lynch admitted that he may have crossed the line between friendship and work. He made a vague reference to getting some “counseling.”
In addition to reporting on the Lynch-Urbanski story, the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune were looking into rumors of Bishop Lynch’s intimate relationship with bachelor David Herman, a contractor who had moved from Fort Lauderdale to St. Petersburg with Lynch when he was installed as bishop. The two men had vacationed together in Hawaii, San Francisco, Key West, Bermuda, Israel and Rome, sometimes accompanied by Urbanski.
Herman had several things in common with Urbanski, one of them being that both men were triathletes. In March 2000, all three men, that is Herman, Urbanski and Lynch went to West Palm Beach for a weekend. Urbanski said the bishop pressured him to go. When they got to their hotel, Urbanski said that Lynch made him take a steam bath together. Herman, who joined the two men said that Urbanski clearly did not want to be there.
Urbanski said that when Lynch began to make sexual overtures towards him, he tried to avoid the bishop as much as possible. “I tried to avoid him as the years progressed, without him getting mad at me. I couldn’t have him mad at me. It was a tough day at work if he was mad at me, yet I couldn’t leave. He went as far as to tell me how to wear my hair. If I got my hair cut, he would say, ‘Oh, Bill. You need to grow your hair back. It’s not a flattering haircut for you.’” He said that when he and Bishop Lynch traveled together the bishop always insisted on sharing rooms, and sometimes appeared naked from the shower.
In April 2002, Urbanski gave a lengthy interview to Brad Smith of the Tampa Tribune in which he elaborated on his four and a half-year relationship with Bishop Lynch. He said that Lynch was a lavish spender who always traveled first class and that he (Urbanski) was frequently the recipient of the bishop’s largesse – watches, designer clothing and other expensive items. Urbanski said at first he was grateful, until he realized that the gifts came at a price – more time, attention, and ultimately sexual favors for the bishop.
It is interesting to note that reporters following the case appeared to be unfazed by the homosexual overtones of the Lynch-Herman relationship or Lynch taking sexual familiarities with Urbanski, a married man with two small children baptized by the bishop. They were upset, however, by the accusation that Lynch, as Corporation Sole of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, had awarded Herman highly inflated new construction contracts totaling $30.3 million on a non-competitive bid basis even though diocesan regulations mandate open bidding for church construction work.
It appears that Bishop Lynch has successfully managed his own sexual misconduct crisis, thanks in no small part to a major distraction provided by the resignation in March 2002 of Bishop Anthony O’Connell of the Diocese of Palm Beach for - you guessed it - sexual molestation.