Accused Priest Commits Suicide
Silver Spring Center Was Assessing Man
By Jamie Stockwell and Michael E. Ruane
May 17, 2002
A Roman Catholic priest who resigned from a Connecticut parish after he was accused of sexually abusing boys hanged himself yesterday at the Silver Spring institute for troubled clergy to which he had been sent for evaluation, police and church officials said.
A nurse found the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, 64, in a residential room at the St. Luke Institute, on New Hampshire Avenue, yesterday afternoon. A priest for 37 years, Bietighofer resigned as assistant pastor of St. Andrew in Bridgeport after four men said he fondled them in the 1970s and 1980s when they were minors.
He resigned April 29 after being confronted by Bishop William E. Lori, head of the Diocese of Bridgeport, who had interviewed two of the men, church officials said.
"The allegations from the two gentlemen were credible enough to warrant immediate action," Lori said at the time.
Lori stripped Bietighofer of his priestly duties and said he would be sent for a psychological evaluation. It was not clear last night exactly when the priest arrived at St. Luke.
Bietighofer, a New York native, had spent most of his career at parishes in Connecticut, with brief stints in Peru. He was pastor at Blessed Sacrament in Bridgeport when the abuse allegedly occurred, church officials said.
The suicide adds another chapter to the Catholic Church's spreading sexual abuse scandal. It comes three days after a Baltimore priest was shot and severely wounded by a man who said the clergyman molested him in 1993, six weeks after an Ohio priest killed himself when he was accused of sexual abuse, and in the midst of a rising tide of angry protest among abuse victims and parishioners.
Capt. Andy Ellis of the Prince George's County police said investigators were called to the institute at 8901 New Hampshire Ave. at 3:22 p.m. yesterday. He said police found Bietighofer in one of the rooms at the 70-patient institute, which treats priests and nuns for sexual disorders, depression, addictions and other afflictions.
The Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, president and chief executive of St. Luke, said he could not, by law, provide details about Bietighofer.
"This is a tragic event for all of us," he said. "We commend the deceased to the mercy of God and offer our heartfelt prayers for the individual and family members."
Rossetti said that it was the first suicide at the 20-year-old facility.
"I think it's a sign of the pain that is felt today," Rossetti said. "We're in the business of healing, and when we lose someone like this, it's a terrible loss, not only for the family but for the staff as well. It's just a real trauma to all of us."
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Rossetti said that his facility did not have special rooms for patients believed to be suicidal.
"We ask them if they are suicidal," he said. "If they are mildly so, we will have the nurses check on them. We might put them closer to the nurses' station."
If the staff determined that someone was severely suicidal, he added, St. Luke would send the patient to a local psychiatric hospital.
Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's County fire department, said recently that his department responded to three emergency calls at St. Luke last year.
On Jan. 23, the department responded for "an overdose"; on March 19, "for a person experiencing breathing difficulties and . . . suffering hyperventilation"; and on April 4, "for possible mental observation."
In each case, the victims were transported to Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Brady said.
Last night, Paul F. Merry, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, said he had known "Father Al" for 30 years and had never heard about any abuse allegation leveled at Bietighofer.
"This never had a chance to go through any kind of adjudication," Merry said.
Abuse is sinful, he said. "It's an evil at work, and I also think it's a disease. . . . We don't know all the facts, but we do know that Father Al has died. And we want to pray for his soul."
Cindy Robinson, a partner in the Bridgeport law firm of Tremont & Sheldon, said that four men who had been altar boys at Blessed Sacrament approached the firm this spring and claimed that Bietighofer had abused them. She said the men decided to go public because they had seen news coverage of similar cases and wanted to prevent future abuse.
Six other men with the same claim later sought out lawyers at the firm, Robinson said. No lawsuits had been filed, she added.
Robinson called Bietighofer's death "tragic."
"No one ever wants to hear about someone committing suicide," she said.
In recent years, there have been several suicides by members of the clergy accused of sexual misconduct.
Prior to the April 4 death of the Rev. Don A. Rooney, 48, in a Cleveland suburb, the Rev. Theodore Llanos killed himself in Northwest Washington in 1997 after being accused of molesting dozens of boys in Los Angeles.
Three years ago, a priest in Ireland, the Rev. Sean Fortune, committed suicide just before he was to go on trial in a sexual abuse case. In 1994, in Richmond, the Rev. John Hesch, who had been accused of abuse, committed suicide six weeks after the suicide of a man who said he had been molested by the priest as a child.
And in 1992, a Benedictine priest, Richard Chung, took his life in Colorado after being told he was under investigation for child abuse.
"I am profoundly saddened by the tragic death of Father Alfred Bietighofer," Lori said last night in a statement. "To parishioners and to all those whom Father Bietighofer assisted during the course of his priestly ministry, I extend my sincere sympathy and prayers."
The Maryland Office of Health Care Quality, which licenses St. Luke, said last night that it would look into the death.
"We will look to make sure that the proper precautions were in place, that all measures to prevent a suicide were in place," Director Carol Benner said.
For example, she added, her staff will examine whether facility personnel have appropriate training and whether the patient had adequate supervision.
Benner and her staff will also review Bietighofer's records to verify that his diagnosis and treatment were properly documented. The process may take a week or two and will involve visiting the institute, interviewing staff members and reviewing any findings by the state medical examiner.
Depending on what is found, the state office could sanction the institute and require it to develop a plan to correct problems.
"The other thing that is important is we will also look at other patients . . . who are suicidal and what kind of precautions are in place for them," she said.
Licensing records from Benner's office that date to the early 1990s report no other suicides or significant problems at St. Luke.
Staff writers Alan Cooperman, David S. Fallis, David A. Fahrenthold and Caryle Murphy contributed to this report.
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