Florida socialite Stephen Fagan pleaded guilty today to kidnapping, admitting he spirited his two daughters away 20 years ago, created a fictional identity for himself, and told the girls their mother was dead when she was not.

His long-awaited confession, however, did not reunite a joyful mother with her long-lost children. Although Barbara Kurth saw her daughters in person today for the first time since they disappeared, they sat on opposite ends of the courtroom wearing stony expressions and without exchanging so much as a "hello."

Only when the young women, now in their twenties, rose to defend their father's actions before his sentencing did Kurth's face crumple slightly and her head bow. But no tears on either side were shed.

"We wish to thank our father for the many sacrifices he has made on our behalf," Rachael Martin told the court, reading from a crumpled yellow paper. "We want the court to know that if we could retroactively give our father the consent needed to take the action he did 20 years ago, we would do so without hesitation."

Kurth, a biologist at the University of Virginia, said in a written statement that the legal outcome did not constitute victory: "Some days I believe Stephen Fagan would have been kinder to really have murdered me rather than having done so only in the minds of my children--at least then there would have been no question as to his punishment."

Fagan, 57, received a suspended sentence and five years of supervised probation for kidnapping and criminal contempt of court. Middlesex Superior Court Judge Peter M. Lauriat also ordered Fagan to perform 2,000 hours of community service at a medical center in West Palm Beach, Fla., and pay $100,000 to the New England Home for Little Wanderers on behalf of Kurth.

Fagan could have faced up to 20 years in prison.

Fagan, who was arrested in April 1998, kidnapped the girls, then 2 and 5, from Massachusetts in October 1979 and told them their mother had been killed in a car accident. They settled in Florida, where he twice remarried and scaled the social ladder under the alias Dr. William Martin. He variously claimed to be a presidential adviser and CIA agent, but he admitted today in court he has not had a job since he left Massachusetts.

Then, as now, he said he took the girls to save them from neglect and accused Kurth of being an alcoholic and an unfit mother. She has denied the charges, calling him a criminal and saying she suffered from narcolepsy, which causes sudden, deep sleep.

"I left with the girls because I believed then and still believe today that it was necessary for the safety, the welfare, and the happiness of Rachael and Lisa," Fagan said outside the courthouse after today's proceeding. "This has always been about Rachael and Lisa, for me. Nothing and no one else."

CAPTION: Socialite Stephen Fagan speaks to reporters in Cambridge, Mass., after his guilty plea.

CAPTION: Lisa Martin listens as her sister Rachael answers a question at a news conference.