Tony Simmons says he ran away from his parents’ home and was living on the streets when the Rev. Rolando Garcia offered him a helping hand at the Church of the Little Flower in Hollywood.
“I was pretty lost,” Simmons, 34, told The Miami Herald. “Father Garcia was the only person who talked to me. He was my friend.”
Last week, Simmons, a decorated U.S. Army specialist who served in the Iraq war, accused Garcia in a lawsuit of sexually abusing him during the mid-1990s, starting when he was 16 years old.
For the first time in recent memory, Miami’s Catholic Church leaders reacted defensively to his negligence suit, the latest of more than 100 filed against the local archdiocese since the clergy-sex abuse scandal broke nationwide a decade ago.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Even before church officials saw Simmons’ suit, the archdiocese issued an unprecedented statement on Tuesday suggesting that if the news media wanted to write a “balanced story,” reporters should ask Simmons’ lawyer where he found him as a client, why he took so long to come forward and why was he homeless?
The Archdiocese of Miami’s official response heightened a controversy already enveloping Garcia, now pastor of St. Agatha Catholic Church in West Miami-Dade, who had been accused of abuse in three previous lawsuits brought by a trio of other alleged victims.
The archdiocese settled two of those complaints, though Garcia was not found liable in the settlements.
In the third complaint, lodged in August, the archdiocese found the allegations “not credible,” saying in a news statement released Wednesday that Garcia “voluntarily took a lie-detector test that supported his denial of having abused anyone at any time.”
The alleged victim, a Mariel boatlift refugee who said he had met Garcia as a seminarian in the early 1980s, was also interviewed by archdiocese lawyers. But the accuser did not take a polygraph test. No other details were disclosed, and there has been no settlement in that case.
In all three instances, Garcia was placed on temporary suspension and later restored to his leadership post.
But hundreds of St. Agatha School parents remained outraged, pushing for Garcia’s removal as pastor in a petition posted in September on Facebook.
“We feel that the integrity as well as the reputation of our school and church has been continually tarnished by past and present allegations against Father Garcia,” the parents wrote in the petition. “There is a genuine feeling of disgust at the lack of action by both St. Agatha School and the Archdiocese of Miami.”
On Wednesday, the archdiocese placed Garcia, who has served as St. Agatha’s pastor since 2001, on administrative leave while it investigates the fourth abuse complaint, which was lodged by Simmons in a lawsuit filed the previous day in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
Garcia, who was born in Cuba and ordained as a priest in 1986, hung up on a Miami Herald reporter who reached him on his cellphone Friday.
After Simmons’ suit was filed, the archdiocese’s communications director zeroed in on his lawyer, Jeff Herman, a longtime archdiocese adversary. In an official statement issued Tuesday, Mary Ross Agosta wrote: “Mr Herman has filed several lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Miami involving Fr. Garcia and yet to date, none have been proven credible.”
The tone of the news statement was strikingly different from the archdiocese’s more-neutral responses to dozens of past allegations of molestation against its priests — especially in the aftermath of the sex-abuse scandal that shook the Catholic Church. Nationwide, dioceses adopted “zero-tolerance” reforms, suspended accused priests, reported complaints to local authorities, conducted internal investigations and offered counseling to victims. They also vowed to be transparent with their flocks.
Agosta said her statement — released just before Simmons and his lawyer held their news conference Tuesday in front of TV cameras and reporters at St. Agatha — did not signal a change of policy under Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who replaced John Favalora in 2010.
“The archdiocese has been consistent with the way it has handled allegations of sexual abuse,” Agosta told The Herald, citing a doctrine called “Protecting God’s Children.”
She said the archdiocese’s statement was meant to prod reporters into asking tougher questions of Simmons’ lawyer, Herman, who has brought more than 100 lawsuits against the archdiocese and settled the vast majority of them for a total of tens of millions of dollars. He filed all four negligence suits involving Garcia.
“When the news media cover these Jeff Herman press conferences, they do not come away with the full truth,” Agosta said in an interview last week. “They are either not asking follow-up questions or Jeff Herman is not revealing any details. . . .
“This has nothing to do with a particular victim or Father Garcia,” she added. “It has to do with Jeff Herman and how he’s manipulating the media.”
Agosta said, for example, that she found it suspicious that while Simmons kept in touch with the priest over the years, he gave Garcia his War on Terror Service medal in 2003 after he finished his Army training camp. She also said that in recent months Simmons asked Garcia about how he and his wife could get married in the Catholic Church.
But Agosta also said that Garcia baptized Simmons’ baby daughter at St. Agatha, which Simmons denied, saying she was never baptized nor had she ever been to Florida. Questioned about that claim, Agosta revised her initial assertion, saying Simmons recently asked Garcia to baptize his second child, who is due soon. But Simmons denied that, too.
A spokesman for a victims’ advocacy group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the archdiocese’s public-relations campaign was clearly aimed at the alleged victim, describing it as “mean-spirited and irrelevant.”
“Wenski’s public-relations staffers declared the latest Garcia victim ‘not credible’ before she even saw his lawsuit,” said David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director. “She attacked the victim’s past. . . . Wenski postures as a reformer but is essentially Favalora on steroids.”
But Agosta wasn’t the only one who expressed doubts about the latest complaint against Garcia.
Simmons’ cousin, August Sorvillo, who once lived in Broward, said he was skeptical about the abuse claims. Sorvillo, 30, whose father, uncle and another cousin are priests in the Anglican and Episcopal churches, said Simmons’ story about being a homeless runaway didn’t ring true.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Sorvillo, who now lives in the Orlando area, told The Herald. “The whole thing strikes me as odd.”
Simmons, asked about his cousin’s skepticism, said they were four years apart in age and that Sorvillo didn’t know about the troubles he had with his parents, which caused him to leave home and live on the streets, cheap efficiency apartments and a runaway center for teens, in the Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale areas.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Simmons’ lawyer, Herman, described his client as a “compliant victim” who was abused by Garcia as “homeless” teen when he met the priest at the Church of the Little Flower in Hollywood in 1994.
Simmons said he was praying at the church when Garcia first approached him. He said the priest initially gave him help, food and counseling, but began to sexually abuse him after they went to a movie one night.
Garcia allegedly performed oral sex on him under a highway overpass, according to Simmons’ lawsuit. Simmons said it was his “first sexual experience.” He said the abuse continued while he was living at Covenant House, a center for runaway teens near Fort Lauderdale beach.
Simmons said Garcia later employed him as a painter during the summer of 2002 at St. Agatha, where their sexual relationship continued. The following year, he joined the Army. But he said he still kept in touch with Garcia, seeking his advice.
Simmons, a watercraft operator who served two tours of duty in the Iraq war, was discharged in 2010 with numerous medals and commendations, according to the Army. Afterward, he joined the Army Reserve. He is married and living in Virginia with his wife and their 1-year-old daughter. They are expecting a second child.
During a mid-October telephone conversation, Simmons said he called Garcia to catch up and the priest revealed that he had recently been accused of sexual abuse. Simmons then looked up news reports on the Internet about Garcia, and found the name of the accuser’s attorney, Herman.
He said the revelation of another alleged abuse victim prompted him to take action against the pastor of St. Agatha.
“If he could do it to me as a kid, then he could do it to someone else at the school,” Simmons told The Herald. “This had to stop.”