Priest's Suicide, Church's Dilemma
Tougher Rules on Allegations Ease Victims' Wounds, Scar Clerics' Careers
By Janice D'Arcy and Maryellen Fillo
June 23, 2002
The spiritual calling came early to the boy everyone in his Bronx neighborhood called "Buddy." While other children were playing ball or house, he was playing "Mass."
"He was 5 and always the priest," recalled Sheila Bietighofer, the older sister of the little boy who grew up to be the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer.
"He would wear one of my mother's dish towels around his neck as a surplice and we would use Vanilla Wafers cookies as the host," she said with a laugh. "The only song all the kids who played with us knew was 'Deep in the Heart of Texas' so we would sing that really slowly so it sounded like a hymn."
Now, a month after the former Bridgeport priest's suicide, his family, friends and scores of former parishioners are struggling to make sense of it all.
The man they knew would not have abused children, they say. The man they knew was a devout Catholic clergyman whose life's work revolved around his faith and his compassion for others.
How was it, then, that this man could end up publicly disgraced, forced to resign by his bishop after two men accused him of abusing them decades ago? How could it happen that, less than three weeks after his resignation, the 64-year-old Bietighofer would be found hanging from a bedsheet at the Maryland psychiatric center where he had gone for treatment?
The Bridgeport diocese has said Bietighofer was removed from his ministry and sent for treatment because the allegations against him were credible. Whether Bietighofer denied or admitted misconduct to his bishop or his psychiatrists isn't known.
But Bietighofer's story is a cautionary tale as bishops around the country begin implementing the first national guidelines regarding sexual abuse by clergy: They must begin removing abusive priests from the ministry and they must report any allegations of abuse to civil authorities. Their critics say that still is not enough. But for some priests -- whether accused of being, or proved to be, sexually abusive -- the new guidelines may usher in a shame too difficult to endure.
A Life's Calling
Buddy was just 3 when he announced he was going to be a priest, Sheila Bietighofer said, and when the family moved next door to a church four years later, her brother was ecstatic. He spent his free time there and signed up as an altar boy.
"My father and mother were both Irish descent, born in the United States, and very devout," said Sheila, the oldest of four children. "But they never pushed him into the priesthood," she said. "It was something he seemed to know in his heart and pursued."
As Buddy grew older, the commitment never wavered, his family said. He never took much interest in dating or in sports, opting instead to attend high school at the Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in Manhattan, where he began preparations for the priesthood. He went on to St. Mary's Seminary in Kentucky, then completed his studies at St. Maur Seminary in Windsor, Canada.
"He was clearly content with his choice," said Sheila Bietighofer. "And besides his faith he was very smart, an 'A' student with a natural ability for languages, especially Spanish and Latin," she recalled. "And people always commented on how respectful he was of others."
Ordained in 1965, Bietighofer was first assigned as a priest in residence at St. George Parish in Bridgeport. The assignment marked the beginning of a career that would take place in and around the city.
The young priest would befriend struggling families in the parish, his brother, Robert Bietighofer, recalled. Considered approachable, caring and attentive, he would offer families everything from pastoral services to new shoes for their children. He could converse in his fluent Spanish, a welcome change for so many of the Hispanic faithful who lived in his parishes.
He would host festive Thanksgiving dinners for those who had nowhere else to celebrate. Youngsters and teenagers in the parish jockeyed to be near him. The youth programs he began at each of his parishes were popular and well attended.
"He worked as a priest seven days a week, never missed a Mass and if anything, got too close to people in order to help them," said his brother, a retired New York City police officer. "He was a saintly man."
Before his career abruptly ended, Bietighofer worked at six parishes in Bridgeport: St. George, St. Anthony, St. Patrick, Blessed Sacrament -- in a tenure from 1976-82 that triggered the turmoil -- St. Charles Borromeo and in his last assignment, at St. Andrew.
Bietighofer also worked at St. Joseph Medical Center in Stamford, St. Joseph Parish in South Norwalk, Sacred Heart Parish in Stamford, St. Mary Parish in Norwalk and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Weston.
"He had a strong personality, but he cared about people," said Debbie Ruffin, who worked with Bietighofer at St. Mary's. Describing him as a "wonderful person" who was always fair, Ruffin said the priest she worked with for three years could also get "riled up," especially when it came to those he felt did not properly respect their faith.
Bietighofer also found a spiritual mission outside Connecticut. Twice he traveled to Peru, in 1974 and 1986; each time he spent a year as an assistant pastor at St. John Vianney Parish in the coastal city of Chiclayo. "He would walk out of the door and there would be 50 or 60 kids trying to get his attention," Bietighofer's brother recalled.
Jose Pezo, an architectural designer, and his brother, Jorge Pezo, curriculum specialist for mathematics in the Bridgeport school district, first met "Father Alfred" in Peru.
The priest befriended them and arranged for both to come to Connecticut to attend college, as he did with other students in the parish.
"We were so grateful that someone from so far away would come to our country and help us," Jose Pezo said. "He was supportive, made you feel like you could accomplish anything you wanted to. He was so for the people and so open," said Jose, who, like his brother, attended Sacred Heart University. "People would crowd the church each week just to hear his sermons. He commanded such respect from people."
WhenBietighofer left Peru, the two brothers recall, hundreds of people crowded the airport to say goodbye.
"We cried and sang a song we had written for him," said Jose. The song, "Adios Alfredo," would be sung May 20 at Bietighofer's graveside.
After his first visit to Peru, Bietighofer took on a similar role for boys at the Blessed Sacrament Parish. He turned the church basement into a sort of teen center, where boys could play pool and hang out after school and on weekends, avoiding the turmoil of an increasingly troubled city.
The Pezo brothers came to live with him and remember a rectory always full of visitors.
They said Bietighofer created a family for them, acting as both a nurturer and disciplinarian. "We had curfews, had to do our homework, had to help with chores, keep our rooms neat, things any family does," Jose said. "We went on vacations and to family reunions. We would sit around together and play our guitars and sing hymns."
The two laughed as they recalled Bietighofer's favorite popular music ... anything by John Denver.
"We'd get in his car to go somewhere and sure enough, he'd put in the John Denver tape," recalled Jorge. "That's all he would listen to."
Bridgeport lawyer Jason Tremont now says that during Bietighofer's tenure at Blessed Sacrament some parents began to have suspicions about the priest.
"The most accurate description I can think of is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," said Mario Jaiman, 36, one of the boys mentored by Bietighofer.
Jaiman said the priest had the outer appearance of piety, but would turn angry when he was alone with the boys. And, often as an implied form of punishment, he would molest them.
Tremont, who now represents Jaiman and several others, said parents complained to church officials about inappropriate behavior, but a diocesan spokesman has said that there is no record of complaints in the priest's file.
According to a sealed court record obtained by The Courant, a diocesan official testified in a deposition that he was aware as early as 1996 that a mother had once complained that Bietighofer was removing children's pants to spank them.
The monsignor said when he asked Bietighofer about it, the priest said the practice was in keeping with the culture of the Hispanic community where he was working. Bietighofer was told to stop the spankings and he did, the monsignor said.
In April of this year, as allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests were surfacing throughout the country and the U.S. cardinals were preparing to go Rome, two men approached a reporter at the Connecticut Post. They told him a story they said they had never publicly discussed. They convinced two other men -- the four had been childhood friends -- to also come forward.
The four men, including Jaiman, also approached Tremont, who had handled other abuse cases against the Diocese of Bridgeport. They told the attorney that they were coming forward because they did not want Bietighofer to have access to children any longer. At least one of them said his children were approaching school age and when he thought about enrolling them, it triggered new anger at Bietighofer.
"It's eats at you for so many years and when we saw we had a voice in Mr. Tremont, we decided it was time," said Jaiman.
On April 28, a story appeared in the Connecticut Post that told of a different side of the popular priest. He was a predator, his accusers said, who molested them when they were vulnerable adolescents.
As the allegations against Bietighofer surfaced, Bridgeport diocese Bishop William Lori was launching his new initiative to change the leadership's reaction to abuse allegations. Just days earlier, Lori had pledged his "commitment to act swiftly, decisively and fairly to allegations of sexual misconduct."
The day after the story appeared, Lori contacted and interviewed two of Bietighofer's accusers. Just hours later, he confronted Bietighofer with the allegations.
Bietighofer immediately resigned and agreed to undergo testing at a psychiatric center.
More details of the story have emerged as a few more men have come forward. The men said that when they were all parishioners at Blessed Sacrament, they were part of the group that hung around Bietighofer's rectory. They said that sometimes the fatherly priest would say it was time for a sexual education lesson and call out for one of the boys -- all were between 8 and 16 -- and invite him for a private chat.
They said the priest would show the boy into his office, his upstairs living quarters or the confessional.
There, they say, the priest would ask them about their sex lives and about their genitals. Jaiman recalls that his sessions with the priest were filled with anger. He said Bietighofer would scold him for his impure thoughts and then unbutton the boy's pants, pull them down, pull down the boy's underwear and fondle him.
Those who have come forward have said it happened to many boys and during the entire span of Bietighofer's 1976-1982 tenure at the parish.
While no lawsuit has been filed, Tremont has continued talks with the diocese on behalf of the alleged victims.
Others who lived in the rectory at the time say they never saw any indication of such misconduct, saying it was not the Father Alfred they knew.
"I began living at the rectory in 1978," said Miguel Seclen, another of the Peruvian students Bietighofer helped bring to Connecticut. Seclen, a teacher in Bridgeport, remembers a happy life filled with chores, church and family activities.
"He was my father in the United States," said Seclen, who like the Pezo brothers, remained close to the priest until his death.
"There was nothing unusual in the rectory," said Seclen. "We had our own rooms, we had chores, school, we went to parish fairs and potluck suppers," said Seclen, who attended Sacred Heart University and received a master's degree from Seton Hall.
Both Pezo brothers and Seclen emphatically stated that Bietighofer never acted improperly with them.
In fact, he eventually would participate in their weddings, and go on to baptize their children.
"We were honored," Jorge Pezo said.
The Final Days
On May 12, Bietighofer arrived at St. Luke Institute, the largest of the six mental health centers that treat Catholic clergy. It is a psychiatric center that both clergy and therapists have praised for its intensive, interdisciplinary treatment since it was founded in 1981. The center had about 350 patients receiving treatment, with about 60 of them living at the center when the priest arrived.
St. Luke tries to project a welcoming air to its patients -- it has a sculpture of the open-armed patron saint of healing near its entrance.
But given the current climate of scandal and disgrace, the institute now represents more than healing.
When Bietighofer drove past the gentle sculpture of St. Luke and up the long driveway in Silver Spring, Md., he was heading toward the same facility where notorious pedophile and former priest John Geoghan had been treated. A quarter of the patients he was joining were there because of allegations that they had sexually abused children.
Rene Molenkamp is a therapist who worked with clergy at St. Luke Institute from 1993 to 1995. He said the current scandal, with its intense publicity, has created new problems for patients who seek treatment. "In being confronted so publicly, it does instill an enormous amount of fear," he said. "Sometimes, the fear is so enormous that they cannot manage it."
The fact that his accusers could file civil lawsuits added to the pressure. "The more consequences attached to the behavior, the more people have to manage emotionally," Molenkamp said.
The first four days at St. Luke are standard for each patient. Each undergoes a battery of tests including a physical, interviews and psychological assessments. There is also a suicide screening, said the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, president of St. Luke. If a patient is deemed suicidal, he is immediately admitted to an outside hospital.
In the weeks after his death, police revealed that last October, a priest being treated for alcoholism left the center without permission and stepped in front of a train.
St. Luke officials continue to stand by their screening process, which was recently criticized in a joint report by the state of Maryland and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations.
Bietighofer was admitted for the in-patient long-term care program. That means the priest would spend the next several months in intensive therapy. He would not be allowed to leave the grounds for his first few weeks. After that, he could leave only with permission.
Rossetti said that if it becomes evident that a patient has had inappropriate contact with a minor at any point, the staff would recommend to church supervisors that he never be left alone with minors again.
It was unclear what Bietighofer would have done when he left St. Luke, but he had to have known that given the attention back home and his bishop's new approach to allegations, his career was devastated. He had to have known that no matter the outcome of any lawsuits, his reputation was forever suspect.
It was with this frame of mind that Bietighofer began his therapy.
This first phase of treatment, which usually tackles denial, is often the most difficult for priests. They have often considered themselves, and have been considered by their communities, beyond reproach. To accept responsibility for abuse can be psychologically agonizing.
The fact that so many priests now are attempting that process amid public scrutiny, Rossetti said, "increases someone's shame and exacerbates their own self-loathing."
Those first days include talking. There are one-on-one meetings with therapists, group therapy sessions. Everyone is encouraged to talk, especially about the subject of sexuality, a topic that some older clergy have never broached. The mission is to talk it out.
During that first week of treatment, Bietighofer was in a talk session, but kept his thoughts private.
On Thursday afternoon, May 16, Bietighofer was alone in his room. While he was supposed to be working through some of his own reckoning, he was removing a bedsheet and tying it in knots. He left a loop to slip his head through. He then opened his door and jammed the knotted sheet between the door and its frame. He climbed up into the noose.
At 3:20 p.m. a staff nurse found him. By that time, the police later said, he was clearly dead.
Rossetti said St. Luke has since adopted the state screening methods. The facility has also, at the suggestion of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Office of Health Care Quality, increased the nursing staff and moved new patients to rooms closer to the nursing stations.
Lori declined to comment for this story. After Bietighofer's suicide, Lori told reporters that he stood by his decision to immediately confront Bietighofer. "We learn that the tragic problem confronting the church during these trying times has multiple victims and that we all have a responsibility to help one another and to play a constructive role," he said. "We learn how best it is for all concerned when issues of abuse are dealt with immediately, as they happen, rather than years later."
A Mixed Legacy
Police in Bietighofer's case will not say if he left a suicide note. Family members say they believe his suicide was triggered by the shock of an innocent man whose life was ruined by false allegations. They, and many of Bietighofer's admirers, blame the accusers. Robert said his brother told him he never abused anyone. "I believe him," he said.
Tremont said he is now investigating allegations from eight to 10 people against Bietighofer. He said he expects more may still come forward.
"Everybody's been attacking us because they say he was a great leader and all that stuff," Jaiman said. "It's not our fault. It was never our fault."
A spokesman for the Bridgeport diocese has already said that Lori found the original accusations credible.
A funeral was held at St. Mary's in Norwalk May 20. One hundred priests attended the standing-room-only service. Lori presided. The Rev. Gustavo Falla, a friend of Bietighofer, delivered the homily.
"It is of public domain that Father Al was accused of having caused harm to others and we have learned that he did cause harm to himself.
"For that reason we invoke God's generous mercy, love and forgiveness and we pray that both his faith and good deeds, which will remain forever God's exclusive knowledge, may count in his favor.
"Along with this we pray, indeed, that healing may soon be a reality for all victims and survivors of neglect and abuse who suffer throughout the world," he said.
Jose Garcia, a former parishioner from Blessed Sacrament, was at Bietighofer's funeral. Garcia, who does not believe that Bietighofer ever abused any boys, was awed by the outpouring. "How could someone have that kind of following," Garcia later asked incredulously, "and have done such terrible things?"
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