By THOMAS HARGROVE
The Catholic diocese in south Florida where former Rep. Mark Foley lived nearly 40 years ago when he said a clergyman sexually abused him, has one of the nation’s worst records of sexual misconduct by priests and bishops.
The Diocese of Palm Beach in south Florida is the only diocese in the United States to suffer the forced consecutive resignations of two bishops — Keith Symons in 1998 and Anthony O’Connell in 2002 — following disclosures of inappropriate sexual contact with boys or young men.
Criminal complaints and sex-abuse-related lawsuits have named another nine priests who served in the Palm Beach diocese, according to BishopAccountability.org, a Boston group that monitors abuse claims against Catholic clergy.
"Palm Beach is certainly among the most troubled dioceses in terms of clergy sex-abuse cases," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Most victims never disclose their victimization. Those who do, often make their disclosure in a crisis," Clohessy said.
It was certainly an atmosphere of personal crisis Tuesday when Foley, through attorney David Roth, announced that he had been molested by "a member of the clergy" when he was 13, 14 or 15 years old.
Foley, under investigation by the Justice Department following release of Internet messages showing sexually explicit exchanges he had with male House pages, did not name either his alleged assailant or identify the church where the abuse occurred.
"Does every little crisis we hear around the world somehow cast a shadow on the Catholic Church?" asked Tom Skindeleski, pastor at St. Vincent Ferrer, one of the churches in the diocese. "It might. We’re very, very human. We have our weaknesses. What bothers us sometimes is we feel we are the targets more than other denominations."
Foley is an active Roman Catholic and was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth, Fla., where he also attended parochial school.
He attended Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach during his 1969-70 freshman year and then transferred to Lake Worth High School.
Town of Palm Beach Commissioner Bill Brooks was a Cardinal Newman guidance counselor at the time Foley was a student.
"I never knew he was sexually abused until Mr. Roth dropped that bombshell yesterday and then never told who it was," Brooks said. "It passed a cloud of suspicion over everyone in the clergy 35 years ago. My stance is, ‘Name him (the alleged offender), and let the legal process take place.’ "
In a speech on the House floor earlier this year, Foley said, "At Sacred Heart, I was taught how to be a better citizen because of their focus on discipline and moral values."
Until Tuesday, Foley never had said publicly he was a victim of sexual abuse.
"As is so often the case with victims of abuse, Mark advises that he kept his shame to himself for almost 40 years," Roth said.
Alexis Walkenstein, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Palm Beach, refused to comment on Foley’s claim or to provide any information about which priests were assigned to parishes and Catholic schools that Foley attended.
"Not knowing what the allegation is, it would be inappropriate to comment. If the congressman was abused, he should report it to the proper authorities," Walkenstein said. "That’s all I’m going to say."
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the nation’s top executive authority for the church, has not ordered an investigation based on Foley’s allegation.
"Given that Mr. Foley has not been specific, it is not anything we can comment on. If he were to name someone, then that would be something on which we could begin an investigation," said John Gehring, spokesman for the conference. "But at this point, there really isn’t enough information."
Palm Beach Town Commissioner Bill Brooks, a former Cardinal Newman High School guidance counselor at the time Foley was a high school freshman, said the allegations "passed a cloud of suspicion over everyone in the clergy 35 years ago. My stance is: Name him (the priest) and let the legal process take place."
Much has been disclosed over the years about the misconduct of other clergy in the diocese.
Symons became the first U.S. bishop to resign because of sexual involvement with boys when he left the diocese in 1998 after admitting to molesting five altar boys earlier in his career.
Pope John Paul II named Bishop Anthony O’Connell to replace Symons, but O’Connell resigned in 2002 after admitting he had coaxed a seminary student to lie nude in bed with him in the 1970s.
"There have been some tragic cases in that diocese," Clohessy said.
Two priests have been criminally convicted for sexual misconduct. The Rev. Lucien Meunier was convicted of child molestation in 1976, while the Rev. Elias Francisco Guimaraes was convicted in 2003 for solicitation of a boy.
Clohessy also pointed to the civil case against the Rev. Arthur Bendixen, accused of sexual abuse in multiple lawsuits that were settled in 1995.
"That was a sad case," Clohessy said. "There were multiple victims and there was ample notice to the diocese. The diocese knew about him for quite a while, yet kept him in ministry."
Michelle Sheldone in Jupiter, Fla., contributed to this report.