Diocese Reports Complaint
State Investigates Allegation; Two Priests Resign Monday
By Edmund H. Mahony and Elizabeth Hamilton
Associated Press, carried in Hartford Courant
April 30, 2002
In an apparent break with past practice, the Diocese of Bridgeport has reported an allegation of sexual abuse by a priest to state criminal investigators for the first time. As a result, the priest -- the Rev. William D. Donovan of Fairfield -- resigned Monday, officials familiar with the events said.
In a related development, a second priest, the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, assistant pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Bridgeport, also resigned after two men complained to the diocese Monday afternoon that he sexually abused them when they were minors.
"The allegations from the two gentlemen were credible enough to warrant immediate action, in line with our policy," Bridgeport Bishop William Lori said of Bietighofer's resignation. "We will bring the specific details of the case before the sexual misconduct review board at its next meeting."
The referral of the complaint against Donovan to the state's attorney's office in Bridgeport is a milestone in what had become an increasingly mistrustful relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and state civil authorities. The diocese did not receive the complaints concerning Bietighofer until late Monday afternoon and no referral had been made to state authorities.
For weeks, the Bridgeport diocese in particular has been criticized by victims and others who have charged that the church failed to report allegations of sexual abuse and took steps to shield abusive clergy from detection. Edward Egan, who was bishop of Bridgeport for more than a decade before becoming New York archbishop in 2000, never referred complaints against clergy to the authorities.
"This is the first time that they referred a complaint to us from the diocese," said John Smriga, an assistant state's attorney in Bridgeport. "And we are investigating the complaint."
The diocese said it could not disclose many details of the abuse complaint against Donovan, including the age of the young man making the complaint, when the alleged abuse occurred or where it occurred.
In a statement released Monday at noon, Lori of Bridgeport conceded that Donovan has admitted a sexual relationship with a young man who might have been a minor.
"Acknowledging the abuse of alcohol was a contributing factor, Father Donovan has also admitted a sexual relationship with a young man," the statement said. "Whether the young man was a minor at the time of the misconduct is unclear."
Joseph McAleer, the spokesman for the diocese, said the complainant claims to have been 15 or 16 when abused. Donovan claims the young man was 21 or 22, McAleer said.
"To my knowledge it happened recently enough that it warranted reporting," McAleer said. "You're not talking about an allegation that happened 30 years ago. The diocese is going above and beyond the law."
McAleer said the Bridgeport diocese believes it is not obligated by law to refer abuse complaints to civil authorities unless the victim is younger than 18.
In his statement, Lori said the victim and his stepfather made the complaint against Donovan during a meeting with a senior church official and the diocesan lawyer last Thursday afternoon. Smriga said the complaint was referred to the state's attorney's office the following day.
Lori announced Donovan's resignation in the same statement. In an apparent coincidence, Donovan was in Superior Court in Bridgeport Monday, where he was sentenced to 150 days in state jail after being convicted of a third drunken driving offense.
Donovan, 66, was pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fairfield, where he has been assigned since 1989. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1961. At a Sunday evening Mass at Holy Family, Lori announced Donovan's resignation and distributed material about counseling available to parishioners.
Under the diocesan sexual misconduct policy, Lori said Donovan will be required to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment once he gets out of jail.
Bietighofer resigned late Monday night after two men told diocesan officials earlier in the day that he abused them in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lori said. Church officials said the two men were minors at the time of the alleged abuse, which occurred when Bietighofer was assigned to Blessed Sacrament Church in Bridgeport.
Bietighofer could not be reached for comment Monday night.
After meeting with the two men who complained about Bietighofer, Lori met with Bietighofer to discuss the allegations. He said Bietighofer voluntarily withdrew from his parish assignment. McAleer said the diocese had expected Monday that two more men might file abuse allegations against Bietighofer.
Bietighofer, 64, had served in the Bridgeport diocese since he was ordained in 1965, except for two yearlong stints in Peru in the 1970s and 1980s.
Before receiving the complaints against Bietighofer, a recent review of his personnel file, part of a search for complaints against all active priests in the diocese, turned up no allegations of sexual misconduct, McAleer said.
However, although McAleer would not discuss it, a senior diocesan clergyman acknowledged that he was aware of a complaint against Bietighofer as long ago as 1996.
During a 1996 deposition connected with a series of abuse suits against the diocese, Monsignor Andrew Cusack told a lawyer for the plaintiffs that a mother in Bietighofer's parish complained that he was removing the trousers of children and spanking them. At the time, Bietighofer was assigned to a parish in an Hispanic neighborhood on the city's East Side.
Cusack said there was nothing in the mother's complaint that suggested Bietighofer was sexually abusing the children. Cusack said he pressed Bietighofer on the complaint and Bietighofer replied that disciplining children by removing their trousers was in keeping with the Hispanic culture.
In his sealed deposition -- one of several obtained by the Courant -- Cusack said he told Bietighofer to discontinue the practice and that Bietighofer said he did.
"If there was anything in the file to warrant further action it would have been dealt with," McAleer said.
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