Fugitive priest is found living in the Caribbean

Accused of sexual abuse, clergyman who served in Baltimore vanished in '93

August 29, 2002|By Eric Rich and Elizabeth Hamilton | Eric Rich and Elizabeth Hamilton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BRIDGEPORT, R.I. - The Rev. Laurence F.X. Brett vanished abruptly almost a decade ago, leaving clothes still hanging in the closet of his Baltimore home and a trail of accusers stretching across four states and back 30 years.

Now, a Hartford Courant investigation has found the disgraced priest - whose disappearance took him beyond the reach of police and plaintiffs' attorneys investigating accusations that Brett sexually abused teen-age boys. He has been living a secretive but comfortable life on the tropical island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean.

Brett apparently has concealed his past as a clergyman and avoided any public connection to the church, identifying himself to acquaintances on the island as a writer, a businessman or, at times, a CIA agent.

The Courant found Brett living in a walled complex of villas at the end of a cul-de-sac by the edge of a lagoon. There, late one afternoon last week, he walked his dog, Joy, and tugged on a cigarette.

"I don't think I remember you," he replied to a reporter who called out his name.

He did not respond to questions about allegations that he abused more than two dozen altar boys and other children in Connecticut, New Mexico, California and Maryland.

Since shortly after his disappearance late in 1993, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church has been that it wants Brett found and brought to justice. The FBI and a private detective tried, unsuccessfully, to find him.

But interviews and documents make clear that, during the past decade, a handful of priests and lay people loyal to Brett have known where to find him - and, in one case, were financially supporting him.

The Courant found evidence that Brett has been in contact for years with at least one and perhaps two priests in the Bridgeport diocese, a prominent Baltimore businessman who is an associate of Cardinal William H. Keeler, a psychologist from Johns Hopkins University, and an order of Catholic priests in Washington, D.C.

An evangelical branch of the order, the Paulist Fathers, for whom Brett worked for many years, supported him financially for years on St. Maarten by sending checks to a Miami mail box, where they were forwarded to an offshore company in Brett's name, a source familiar with the arrangement said.

Corporation records show that Brett created the company - called Wordshares, a variation on the name of the Paulist magazine, Share the Word, for which Brett once wrote - in 1996 on the island of Anguilla, a short boat ride from St. Maarten.

The Paulists did not return calls for comment yesterday. They have previously said Brett worked as "a contract employee" but have refused to discuss his whereabouts.

Told of the Courant's findings, Bridgeport Bishop William Lori issued a statement late yesterday saying he was satisfied Brett had been located. Lori said he was now investigating the actions of the two priests who allegedly have been in contact with him.

"I would be personally disappointed if any of my priests knew of Brett's whereabouts and did not inform me, especially as I have made it very clear that the diocese was anxious to locate Brett and bring him to justice," Lori said.

Brett lived until three months ago on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, not far from the casino and beach at opulent Cupecoy.

Early in June, neighbors said, Brett left suddenly, cutting ties and spreading word that he was returning to the United States.

His case was becoming national news - CNN in May aired a videotape of then-Bridgeport Bishop Edward Egan testifying during a 1997 trial over Brett's abuse of a Connecticut altar boy, and Time magazine featured Brett in an April cover story on the church scandal.

Instead of leaving St. Maarten, Brett moved across the lagoon known as Simpson Bay, to a ground-floor apartment in a cluster of white stucco buildings called Koolbaai Villas.

St. Maarten, less than an hour's flight east of Puerto Rico in the Lesser Antilles, became Brett's home only after an extraordinary odyssey that began in 1964, when he admitted engaging in nonconsensual oral sex with a student at Sacred Heart University.

Brett was subsequently expelled from the diocese but permitted to continue as a priest under the auspices of the Bridgeport diocese. He was dispatched to an isolated monastic retreat in New Mexico before traveling briefly to California, then settling in Baltimore.

Allegations of sexual abuse followed him.

Beginning late in 1992, the Bridgeport diocese learned of three old allegations against Brett. Egan called him back to Bridgeport, suspended him and asked that he voluntarily leave the priesthood. Brett at first agreed, but later changed his mind.

He left his home in Baltimore late that year or early the next, staying briefly at the home of a friend in Florida in 1994 before dropping out of sight.

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