Case of notorious Calvert Hall priest Laurence Brett cited in recent report on clergy abuse
By Alison Knezevich
November 11, 2019
The case of a notorious Baltimore-area Catholic priest is cited in a recent report as a key example of how church officials shuffled clergy accused of sexual abuse, leaving more children at risk.
Church leaders in Bridgeport, Connecticut knew about allegations against Laurence Brett in the 1960s, according to an independent review of how the diocese there handled abuse cases. Brett later went on to teach at Calvert Hall College, a Towson high school where more than a dozen students eventually accused him of abuse.
The Bridgeport diocese has paid more than $2.7 million in settlements to people who accused Brett of abuse — representing 5% of all its abuse payouts, according to the report released last month. The report does not specify the number of people who received settlements related to Brett.
In Baltimore, the archdiocese has reached voluntary settlements totaling $326,000 with six people who accused Brett of abuse, spokesman Sean Caine said in response to an inquiry from The Baltimore Sun.
Brett died on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 2010 at the age of 73, after years on the run from law enforcement. Church officials have said that at least 14 former Calvert Hall students had accused Brett of abuse.
The report named him as one of 71 priests in the Bridgeport diocese accused of sexually abusing minors since the diocese’s founding in 1953. It concluded that a string of Bridgeport bishops — including the late Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, who later led the Baltimore archdiocese — kept accused priests in service, enabling further abuse.
The report includes an excerpt from a February 1966 letter that a top aide of Bridgeport Bishop Walter Curtis wrote to a church official in Sacramento, California, after Brett was relieved of his duties as chaplain at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut “because of an incident of improper conduct.”
“The small area of this diocese (633 square miles!) makes it very difficult for Bishop Curtis to plan on reassigning Father Brett here,” the aide wrote. “Some other diocese where Father can resume priestly work is presently being sought.”
Also excerpted is a 1967 letter from Curtis to a Vatican representative after a family sought financial assistance after their son reported being “propositioned” by Brett. The report characterizes Curtis’ response to the family as “uncaring, defensive, and willfully obtuse.”
Bridgeport Bishop Frank J. Caggiano ordered the review of his diocese’s actions last year. A retired Connecticut judge, Robert Holzberg, led the investigation.
“I wish again to offer my profound and heartfelt apology to all who have suffered abuse at the hands of any cleric in our Diocese,” Caggiano wrote in a letter to parishioners when the report was released last month. “I also apologize to all those who have lost a sense of trust or feel betrayed by Church leadership. My personal commitment is to do whatever is humanly possible to eradicate this evil from our midst.”
Details of the church response to Brett have been aired in the past, including in media reports and during a civil trial in a lawsuit brought in the 1990s by a man who said the priest abused him in Connecticut in the early 1960s.
But past actions of Catholic officials are getting new scrutiny across the country as authorities launch reviews to catalog accusations and review the church’s response, including a landmark Pennsylvania grand jury investigation released in 2018.
In Maryland, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori informed clergy last year that Attorney General Brian Frosh had launched an inquiry.
The Bridgeport review found that Brett was alleged to have perpetrated abuse against 23 victims, ranging in age from 10 to 18.
David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings, but the Brett case still “breaks my heart.”
“The bishops were protecting the institution instead of the people that the institution is supposed to serve,” Lorenz said.
Brett attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in the 1950s, according to documents included in the Connecticut report. He was ordained in 1962 in Bridgeport under Curtis.
After leaving Connecticut, Brett spent time in California and New Mexico, where he was treated at a facility that has since been discredited.
He served at Calvert Hall from 1969 to 1973, also spending time at several Maryland parishes. Abuse claims from Calvert Hall students first emerged in the 1970s.
He went on to become chaplain of the the School Sisters of Notre Dame Motherhouse in Baltimore County starting in 1976 and then worked as a religious publisher in Washington D.C , according the the Baltimore archdiocese.
Lori, then the bishop of Bridgeport, removed Brett from the priesthood in the early 2000s.
Attorney Joanne Suder said she represented men who attended Calvert Hall and received settlements from the Baltimore archdiocese.
“It’s illustrative of the overall problem of allowing dangerous ... sexual abusers to go from one jurisdiction where they’ve harmed to another jurisdiction where nobody would have any clue that they were dangerous and had abused,” she said of the Brett case.
Earlier this year Pope Francis required Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report sexual abuse or cover-ups to church leaders. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is gathering in Baltimore this week for its fall meeting, followed up in June by voting to create a nationwide system to report sexual abuse.