Abusive Priest Flees Island
Facing Immigration Charges, Brett Hurriedly Quits St. Maarten

By Eric Rich
Hartford Courant
September 19, 2002

Abusive priest Laurence F.X. Brett has left the Caribbean island where he lived secretively for nearly a decade, fleeing just days before local police descended on his lagoon-side villa.

The authorities on St. Maarten, reacting to a report in The Courant, had planned to detain the disgraced priest on immigration violations while they determined whether U.S. prosecutors intended to extradite him on charges of sexually abusing children, a local official said.

But police found Brett's villa deserted early this month, the official and another man, Brett's landlord, said Wednesday. Investigators later learned that Brett stopped briefly on a tiny island nearby, Saba, before leaving there for an unknown destination.

In an odd twist, after he arrived on Saba, Brett was given a ride from the airport by the island's top immigration official, Cletus Johnson. Johnson learned only later - after seeing Brett's photo in a local newspaper - that the man he had just met was a notorious pedophile priest on the run.

Brett's flight is likely to complicate any effort to have him returned to the United States for prosecution.

Still, the public prosecutor in St. Maarten said Wednesday that his office is actively investigating the case and that he has been in contact with authorities in the United States. The prosecutor, Cornelius Merx, declined to identify the U.S. authorities or to disclose the substance of the communications.

"I cannot give you that information because it's part of the investigation," Merx said. "We are working on the case, but I cannot give details."

Brett, who traveled widely while working as a priest in the Bridgeport diocese, allegedly abused more than two dozen children in four states before he vanished from Baltimore in 1993. Subsequent searches for Brett by the FBI and a private investigator were unsuccessful.

After The Courant located Brett last month, Bridgeport Bishop William Lori and many of Brett's victims said they hoped that the priest would be brought to justice.

Baltimore authorities obtained two warrants for his arrest in 1999, but the warrants were later vacated because, under some legal interpretations, the statute of limitations had expired.

Prosecutors there declined last week to say whether they intend to resurrect those charges or bring new ones based on a more recent allegation of abuse, in 1976, which appears to be prosecutable under the law.

"We do not comment on investigations," Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor said, declining even to confirm whether such an investigation exists. "We think it's unethical and we don't do it."

The Courant's discovery that the missing priest was living on the island set off a chain of events late last month, both in the United States and in the Caribbean.

In Bridgeport, Lori notified authorities in New Mexico, California, Maryland and Connecticut, as well as on the island. In addition, the bishop temporarily stripped two pastors of their duties after The Courant revealed that they had secretly been in contact with the missing priest.

In Baltimore, a prominent layman who had also maintained contact with Brett was removed from his position as chairman of a panel responsible for the renovation of the oldest basilica in the country. The layman, Wayne Ruth, an associate of Cardinal William Keeler's, is to have no involvement in the project while the archdiocese investigates his contact with Brett, an archdiocesan spokesman said Wednesday.

On the island, the story circulated widely in local newspapers. St. Maarten quickly became a less hospitable place for Brett - although by then he already may have been gone.

Prosecutors initially said they were waiting for word from authorities in the United States before taking any action. "What we need to know is do they or don't they want him?" local prosecutor Johan De Vrieze told Today, a local newspaper.

But a member of the senate that oversees the Dutch islands in the Antilles, Pedro Atacho, complained that public safety was at risk and requested more aggressive action.

Atacho said Wednesday that Brett was found to be in violation of the island's immigration laws, and the lieutenant governor ordered that he be detained. Police arrived at Brett's villa, with a prosecutor, earlier this month, only to find that Brett had vanished again.

Brett's neighbors in a complex of walled villas reeled at the news that the short, aging man they new as a retired writer was actually a priest accused of being a notorious abuser of teenagers and young men. One resident told Today that neighbors were "likely to lynch" Brett if he returned.

Flight manifests show that Brett flew into Saba, according to Clifton Gumbs, an immigration official there. The priest got a lift from the airport with Gumbs' superior, Johnson, and is believed to have left the island, perhaps by boat, a short time later.

Saba, like St. Maarten, is a Dutch territory. The island is a mere 5 square miles and, with a population of about 1,200, officials say that Brett could not have remained there undetected.

"We assume he has left for another destination," Atacho said. "Nevertheless, the local authorities are still looking."

In the meantime, Merx said he has not opened any investigation into Brett's conduct on the island - where several of his former neighbors at a condominium complex told The Courant that teenagers and young men were frequent visitors. Merx said he has received no specific complaints.

Brett left the condominium complex abruptly in early June, cutting ties and telling neighbors that he was leaving the island. Instead, he moved across the lagoon he once looked over, settling into the first-floor apartment in a white stucco villa at a complex called Koolbaai.

The landlord at Koolbaai, Felix Carbon, said that Brett left his villa there in a hurry, too. Carbon said Brett left the apartment virtually as it was when he lived in it. He said an acquaintance of Brett's later returned to empty it of his possessions.

Atacho said Wednesday he was disappointed that Brett had eluded capture again.

"The parents in New Mexico, Maryland, those states where the children were living in," Atacho said, "they were waiting for justice."


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