WASHINGTON - The wife of spy suspect Robert Hanssen has told authorities that he confided to her and to a Catholic priest about 20 years ago that he had begun supplying information to the KGB.
She said that the priest initially urged Hanssen to turn himself in, but then changed his mind and persuaded Hanssen to donate the $20,000 he had received from the Soviet Union to charity, government officials and others involved in the case said.
Hanssen told his wife that he gave the money, in small installments, to Mother Teresa's charitable efforts, according to the account she gave to investigators.
Bonnie Hanssen, who is not suspected of unlawful activity in the case, has told investigators that the discussions with the priest took place about 1980, when the couple lived in Scarsdale, N.Y. At the time, Robert Hanssen was working in counterintelligence in the FBI's New York office. Her account suggests that his spying activities might have begun well before 1985, the year prosecutors have said he first approached the Soviets.
Bonnie Hanssen has said that, after the 1980 incident, her husband told her that he had given the KGB money to Mother Teresa and promised her that he would cut off further contact with Moscow. She has told the FBI that she was stunned when he was arrested in February and charged with espionage activities over a 15-year period.
Law enforcement officials acknowledged that they were familiar with the details of Bonnie Hanssen's account. They said they had no reason to question her truthfulness, but they had been unable to collect other evidence to corroborate her statements.
Investigators have not interviewed the priest, the Rev. Robert P. Bucciarelli. They are apparently unwilling to question him about matters that could be considered confidential under both canon and criminal law. Moreover, investigators appear to believe that they are likely to obtain a full account of Robert Hanssen's activities directly from the suspect, if he reaches a plea bargain with the government as expected.
If Robert Hanssen confessed such an offense to a priest, the priest is not legally obligated to report the conversation to the authorities.
Apart from issues of confidentiality, the officials say they have been unable to find financial records showing payments from Hanssen to Mother Teresa's charities. Neither have they uncovered evidence that classified information Hanssen possessed in 1980 was turned over to Moscow.
But the FBI director, Louis J. Freeh, has testified about Bonnie Hanssen's account to a closed session of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, officials said.
Robert Hanssen's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, said he would not comment on the account. Neither would Bonnie Hanssen's lawyer, Janine Brookner.
The details about Bonnie Hanssen's account come as prosecutors and Robert Hanssen's lawyers are said by law enforcement officials to be close to a deal in which the government would waive the death penalty, but he would accept a sentence of life in prison and cooperate fully with investigators. Neither government officials nor Cacheris would discuss the status of the negotiations.