Abusive Priest Found in Caribbean Hideaway
Trail of Accusations Goes Back 30 Years for Clergyman Who Worked under Auspices of Bridgeport Diocese
By Eric Rich and Elizabeth Hamilton
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
August 29, 2002
The Rev. Laurence F.X. Brett vanished abruptly almost a decade ago, leaving clothes still hanging in his closet and a trail of accusers stretching across four states and back 30 years.
Now, a Hartford Courant investigation has found the onetime fugitive -- whose flight took him beyond the reach of police and plaintiffs' attorneys investigating accusations that Brett sexually abused teenage boys -- living a secretive but comfortable life on the tropical island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean.
In hiding, and with the support of friends from his days as a priest, Brett has concealed his past as a clergyman and avoided any public connection to the church. He has identified himself to acquaintances on the island as a writer, a businessman or, at times, a CIA agent.
The Courant found the disgraced Bridgeport priest 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.
Realizing he had been found out, the 65-year-old priest slumped and stared at the ground. He did not respond to questions about allegations that he had abused more than two dozen altar boys and other children in Connecticut, New Mexico, California and Maryland. When asked whether he continues to molest children today, he looked up, shook his head and said: "No."
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. Church officials in Bridgeport and Baltimore have called Brett a criminal and an "evil man." The FBI and a private detective have tried, unsuccessfully, to find him.
But interviews and documents make clear that, during the past decade, a handful of priests and laypersons loyal to Brett have known where to find him -- and, in one case, were financially supporting his life on the lam.
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 businessman who is an associate of Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, a psychologist from Johns Hopkins University, and an order of Catholic priests in Washington.
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 mailbox, 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 Wednesday. 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 Wednesday saying he was satisfied Brett had been located. Lori said that 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.
A diocese spokesman, Joseph McAleer, added that the bishop felt compelled to alert law enforcement authorities in Connecticut and Maryland after being told that The Courant had located Brett.
"We frankly didn't know if he was dead or alive," McAleer said.
On the Run
Brett lived until three months ago on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, not far from the casino and beach at opulent Cupecoy. Speaking on condition of anonymity, neighbors at his condominium complex said that, over the years, teenagers and young men were frequent visitors.
Early in June, they said, Brett left suddenly, cutting ties and spreading word that he was returning to the United States.
"He moved like he wanted to disappear," one former neighbor at the Cote d'Azur condominiums said.
In fact, as his case became 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 -- the missing priest was going deeper into hiding.
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. The development is unwelcoming on the outside, with signs warning of dogs and private property. His villa is in the back, by a dirt parking area down a rutted road, near a desolate grassland littered with old wooden pallets and discarded trash. Six months ago, a body was found there, one resident said.
Brett, always diminutive, once charismatic and considered brilliant even by his victims, appears frail and in ill health today. He is a heavy smoker and a drinker.
His neighbors at Cote d'Azur described Brett as friendly, at times, but mercurial and moody. One called him "a spoiled brat" who tended to make much of small complaints and who reveled in the small power that came with being president of the condominium owners' association.
St. Maarten, less than an hour's flight east of Puerto Rico, sits almost at the top of the string of tropical islands known as the Lesser Antilles. The Atlantic spreads out to the east, dotted with other islands, and the Caribbean stretches emptily to the west.
The island, half Dutch and half French, is known for its luxury resorts, glitzy casinos and isolated white sand beaches. It is also a place where, because there is no border between the two sides, and because boats can shuttle easily among the islands, "it is possible for a man to hide out," as one high-ranking police official on the French side of the island said.
St. Maarten became Brett's home only after an extraordinary odyssey that began in 1964, when he admitted biting the penis of a student at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield during nonconsensual oral sex. Brett was confronted and subsequently ordered to leave the diocese. He traveled the country in seeming exile, but was permitted to continue as a priest under the auspices of the Bridgeport diocese, first under Bishop Walter Curtis and later under Egan.
He was dispatched to an isolated monastic retreat in New Mexico before traveling briefly to California, and then settling in Baltimore. Allegations of sexual abuse followed him everywhere.
Beginning late in 1992, the Bridgeport diocese learned of three old allegations against Brett in the space of several months. 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.
Publicly, that is where Brett's trail ended.
Meanwhile, complaints about his past behavior continued to pour in. Baltimore Archdiocese officials said they have received 15 complaints against Brett since 1972 and turned over all their information to prosecutors in the hope that Brett would be found and prosecuted.
"Larry Brett is a criminal," said Stephen Kearney, spokesman for the diocese. "He's an evil guy."
It was information from these complaints that resulted in two warrants for Brett's arrest being issued in February 1999. In those warrants, two former students from Calvert Hall, a Catholic high school in the Baltimore area, detailed how Brett allegedly ordered them to report to his office, where he performed oral sex on them under the pretense of inspecting their penis size or confirming they weren't homosexual.
Brett was charged with custodial child abuse and second-degree sexual offense in both cases and the FBI's fugitive task force began searching for the missing priest, but the charges were withdrawn before Brett could be located.
Prosecutor John Cox, who heads the Baltimore County state's attorney's sexual assault unit, said the charges were withdrawn because the specific statutes didn't exist in the early 1970s when Brett was alleged to have committed the crimes. The only charge that did exist then that fit the crimes, Cox said, was one called "perverted practice" and there is disagreement in the state's appellate court about whether that charge, a misdemeanor, carries a one-year statute of limitations.
Cox said in an interview last month that his office could have chosen to make Brett a test case, but said that "doesn't get us past the fact that he's missing." The FBI's fugitive task force does not have jurisdiction to take people into custody on misdemeanor charges.
"It's a matter of finding him," Cox said.
What few people knew is that Brett, faced with mounting accusations against him, had decided in 1993 to disappear. He turned to an old friend in Baltimore for help.
He asked Wayne Ruth, an associate of the cardinal, to help him dispose of his home on North Paca Street. Ruth, a prominent local businessman who is now chairman of the board in charge of renovating the First Basilica, the oldest cathedral in the nation, had been a student at Calvert Hall in Baltimore years earlier, when Brett served as chaplain there.
Brett signed over power-of-attorney to Ruth, and in the summer of 1994, records show, Ruth closed the deal. Brett evidently left in a hurry.
"Everything was still in the house," said Virgil Gross, the man who bought the property, "like he said he was going to the store and just never came back."
In interviews earlier this month, Ruth said he has seen Brett on St. Maarten only once since then, at a restaurant, and it was his impression Brett was merely passing through. The subject of where Brett was living never came up, Ruth said.
"We mostly talked about old times," he said.
Ruth said he didn't know his old friend was living on the island, less than a half mile from where he himself had a condominium. He admitted that he had been to the Cote d'Azur, but said he was unaware the man who baptized his oldest son was living there.
"I've been there, but I had no idea Larry was living there," he said.
He could offer no explanation for why other Cote d'Azur residents recall that he had visited Brett. He did offer an explanation of how they could have known Ruth's name, and known that he had two sons: "Everybody in St. Maarten knows about me."
Brett's former neighbors on St. Maarten also said a man named David Howell was an occasional visitor. Although the neighbors had no way of knowing it, Howell is the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in South Norwalk. One neighbor said Howell had been to the island in January of this year.
In an interview this week, Howell -- who said he overlapped for one year with Brett in the seminary -- explained that he has a timeshare on the island and acknowledged that he was there in January. But he denied seeing Brett or knowing that he was there.
He could not explain why he appeared to be the intended recipient of a faxed memorandum found on the floor of Brett's condominium after Brett departed in such haste in June. Howell's name and parish fax number appear on the memo.
The cryptic document, obtained by The Courant, concerns a "long-standing project" that "has always been a troublesome undertaking." It says a forthcoming letter will describe "the entire situation, together with resolution" and, mysteriously, notes the valuable support of "the Good Doctor, who is truly the godfather of Joy."
The Good Doctor appears to be a reference to Gregory Lehne, Brett's therapist, who delivered a dog named Joy to Brett after his old dog, Shakespeare, was struck by a car and killed two years ago. Lehne, a professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who specializes in treatment of sexual disorders, said it was Howell who alerted him two years ago that Brett had plunged into depression after Shakespeare died.
"That was how I heard he was so depressed," said Lehne.
In response to the news, Lehne rushed to the island with the new dog. It was his second visit. Lehne said Wednesday that he saw no problem in socializing with his former patient, even staying at Brett's condo, and that he didn't realize his former patient and friend was being sought by the FBI and at least one private investigator.
The mysterious memo from Brett's abandoned condo does not have Brett's name on it, but instead bears the name Wordshares Inc., the Anguilla company Brett created to accept payments from the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association.
Neither the Rev. Kenneth Boyack, director of the association, nor Denny Marcotte, general manager of Share the Word, would comment about Brett's past employment there. Boyack did not return a call Wednesday and Marcotte would not come out of his office in Washington last month when visited by a reporter.
Paula Diehl, managing editor of Share the Word magazine during Brett's tenure, said Wednesday she does not know when Brett stopped working there or how he was paid after he disappeared from Baltimore in 1993. A "Mr. Laurence F.X. Brett" is listed on the magazine masthead as the author and general editor up to 1997, four years after his disappearance.
His name does not appear in a 1998 edition, but no one appears to have replaced him as the sole writer of Share the Word, either. There is no listing for a writer.
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