By the time Laurence Francis Xavier Brett came calling at the Diocese of Bridgeport in 1955, the bright, eager young man's bid to become a priest had already been rejected by another bishop.
The reason: the Archdiocese of Hartford determined that the adopted seminarian's natural mother had been a "simple" unmarried girl, his father from a "worthless family."
Brett's illegitimate birth in 1937 at the St. Agnes Home for Unwed Mothers in West Hartford was enough to blackball him under canon law. Church officials in Bridgeport, however, were charmed enough by his "qualities of mind and soul" to obtain a dispensation from the Vatican to let him in - but only after assuring themselves that his birth did not result from an "adulterous or sacrilegious union."
While the church went to great lengths to plumb the humiliating details of Brett's entry into the world, there is no record that it spent much time probing the impressive veneer of sophistication and charm that masked a darker, moral failing within: namely, his admitted sexual appetite for boys.
It is an ironic oversight that would go on to empower Brett and, more tragically, haunt his victims even to this day.
Now one of the more notorious national examples of clergy sex-abuse, Brett's story spans the country over four decades, and involves dozens of alleged victims, five bishops and a Caribbean island, where The Courant last month found the onetime fugitive living secretively beyond the reach of U.S. prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys.
In addition to its sprawling scope, his tale is especially disturbing because of its audacity - both on the part of Brett and of the church officials and laymen whose loyalty to the charismatic priest remained strong, long after he was widely accused of molesting children. The Courant's investigation revealed a tight network of old friends and colleagues, including two Connecticut priests and an associate of Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, that supported Brett and helped conceal his whereabouts.
How did Brett inspire such fealty from respectable people in the face of such despicable behavior?
The same way he managed to enter the priesthood and, later, insinuate his way into the lives of dozens of young boys: charm.
Despite his troubled childhood - or, perhaps, because of some internal impetus to overcome it - Brett seemed driven to use his considerable talents to win over everyone he met. The three-dozen associates, friends, accusers and former parishioners of Brett interviewed for this story are unanimous in their description of the priest as "brilliant."
He could speak half a dozen languages, they say, read Latin and translate Hebrew and ancient Greek. He was widely traveled and could captivate an audience, no matter how large or small, with the tales he spun from those trips. He could complete crossword puzzles in one-tenth the time it took others. His teaching, speaking and motivational skills were unparalleled. They felt smarter, more interesting, just by associating with him.
Many fell under the spell - various bishops and colleagues of the collar, influential Catholic donors and businessmen - and, of course, boys.
He was unlike any priest most boys had ever met.
He let them drive his car, a red '62 Pontiac Tempest with vinyl seats, even though they were too young to drive. He heard their confessions outside, walking around the church or the school, instead of in a booth. He swore like a sailor and smoked a pipe and took them to dirty movies in the city. Some of the boys say he even took them to Manhattan to find hookers.
He was "Larry," not Father Brett.
Where some child molesters used alcohol or sports to woo their prey, Brett, his accusers say, chose a far more diabolical method. He used their faith in God against them.
He did this skillfully, manipulating them with his nimble tongue, his superior intellect and - perhaps most important - his ability to explain Catholicism in a way that spoke to smart, searching young boys. He quickly became a central figure in their lives - their confessor, their teacher, their idol.
But first, he became their friend.
Father Brett held up the crucifix to show the 10-year-old boy what his savior looked like nailed to the cross.
Christ's body was battered and bare, but the priest ignored the injuries, the obvious suffering. Instead, he pointed to the ripples in Christ's stomach.
Brett explained to the boy, George, that he could teach him exercises that would make him look like Jesus. George idolized Brett so much, he recalled, that he later took the priest's first name as his own confirmation name. He sang in the church choir and attended St. Cecilia's elementary school in Stamford.
He did not know how to say no to a priest who offered to make him over in Christ's image.
So, George said, he did what the priest wanted. He took off his clothes in the rectory bedroom, put on the silky white panties Brett bought for him and climbed up on the desk to exercise in front of the young priest. He didn't resist later when Brett stripped down, laid on top of him on the rectory bed, and rubbed up and down his body.
George - who did not want his last name used - was hardly alone. Tony Cardone, Frank Martinelli, Mark Frechette and John Deikis already knew each other because they attended the same schools in Stamford and, of course, St. Cecilia's Church, a close-knit parish in the Springdale section of the city.
By the winter of 1962, though, those four boys and other classmates chosen by Brett had a new identity. They were Brett's Mavericks.
It was a moniker Brett lifted from the main character of the hit television show "Maverick," and it appealed to 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds with fragile egos. It set them apart.
"It was seductive - not in a sexual way, but in a relational way," John Deikis says now. "I trusted him."
Although the stated purpose of the group was harmless enough - Brett implied that it distinguished them as the few students smart enough to discuss liturgy, and all things spiritual, with him - it soon came to mean something far less wholesome.
One was "bush-whacking," the practice of sneaking up on young couples parked in St. Cecilia's lot and chasing them away. Brett told the boys it was immoral for the couples to be making out, but in retrospect it's clear to some of them that bush-whacking was just a clever way of introducing sexual tension into their encounters with the priest.
One time, Martinelli said, Brett carried things too far. It was just the two of them in the front seat of Brett's Pontiac, when suddenly the priest unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis and asked, "Will you put your mouth on me?"
Martinelli remembers hearing the question and becoming instantly unmoored. He looked at the priest uncertainly and stammered out a question: "Is this all right?"
Brett, he said, assured him it "was just another way of receiving Holy Communion." Martinelli said he, too, did what the priest asked.
For Tony Cardone, an experienced altar boy, the bad times usually came in the sacristy, right after private Masses performed by Brett. From the altar, the two went to the sacristy to change from their vestments into street clothes. There, amid the priests' robes, the chalice and the faint smell of incense, Cardone recalled, Brett explained that performing fellatio on each other was "the way Christian men receive communion."
"He would unzip himself and then unzip me," Cardone said. "I remember him telling me one time I had the body of a Greek god."
Cardone recalled Brett arranging for three of his "mavericks" to join him on a spring-break trip to Washington and Baltimore, where Brett was involved in church issues nationally. Even at 26, Brett was in great demand by the Liturgical Conference, for which he'd already written educational manuals and would later be asked to take an even more prominent role.
Staying at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, the boys and Brett slept in the suite normally reserved for the archbishop and other visiting dignitaries - a coup on Brett's part that impressed the boys. It was the most elegant place any of them had ever been, with a large four-poster bed, mosaic tiles and long heavy curtains at the windows.
One night, he took the boys to a fancy restaurant and ordered lobster Newburg - something none of them had ever even tasted - took one bite, and ground his cigarette out in the plate. Then, in a loud voice, he declared the dish inedible and ordered the waiter to take it back.
Later, under the crucifix hanging over the bed, Cardone said, Brett molested him while the other two boys slept in the anteroom. The next night, another boy slept in the bed with Brett.
Although Brett's actions ultimately had negative affects on all the boys, Mark Frechette's reaction was extreme, records and interviews show. Within months of his own fateful encounter with the priest - Frechette told a friend that Brett performed oral sex on him after hearing his confession - the straight-A student dropped out of school, started burglarizing homes and, eventually, landed in the state-run mental hospital.
After Frechette divulged details of what happened with Brett, his parents fought, unsuccessfully, to get Bridgeport Bishop Walter Curtis to pay for better psychiatric care for their son. Although Curtis at first argued there was no proof Brett had done anything wrong, by 1964 the bishop had overwhelming evidence of Brett's sexual misconduct.
That year, records show, Brett was confronted with the allegation that, during oral sex, he had bitten the penis of a 19-year-old student at Sacred Heart University, where Brett had been just been appointed chaplain. In addition, a family from St. Cecilia's complained to their parish priest that Brett had propositioned their young son.
Brett admitted to both incidents and also confided to diocesan officials that he'd recently been seeing a psychiatrist because he realized he had a problem. His admissions of guilt prompted an emergency meeting of high-ranking monsignors in Bridgeport the next day to discuss what they feared could become a public relations nightmare.
They decided to send Brett away immediately. One of them drove him that night to a Jesuit retreat house in Ridgefield, from which he was then taken to an even more remote location, the Sacred Heart Retreat House in Auriesville, N.Y., where he stayed until Curtis returned from a conference.
"A recurrence of hepatitis was to be feigned should anyone ask" about Brett's whereabouts, the monsignors wrote in their minutes of the meeting.
It was not the last time Brett would suddenly drop out of sight.
In the rugged hills north of Albuquerque, not far from where the U.S. government once built a secret town and then a secret bomb, a sickness in the Catholic Church was quietly taking root at a remote monastery called Via Coeli.
Some of the priests who came there to meditate and pray were alcoholics. Others had lost their faith. But a few were there for a far more dangerous reason: They liked young boys.
In December 1964, Via Coeli had yet to receive its most notorious pedophiles: James Porter, Arthur Perrault and David Holley, fallen priests whose serial abuse of children in New Mexico and elsewhere would, years later, force the monastery to close its doors.
But already at Via Coeli, in a bungalow by the Jemez River, was Larry Brett. He had been sent to New Mexico by Curtis, and he wanted desperately to return home.
Recounting his time there years later, Brett likened the monastery to a prison. He told church officials that he and the other "inmates" there were required to attend often-bizarre talks given by Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder and director. At one, he said, Fitzgerald made an inappropriately explicit reference to the Virgin Mary.
While at Via Coeli, Brett wrote to Curtis, pleading, in the ornate calligraphy that marks his handwriting, to be allowed to return to Connecticut. By turns obsequious and solicitous, Brett complained about the living conditions and his health, and assured Curtis that his progress was good.
"I doubt, or rather I am sure, that no such incident as brought me here will ever happen again, and the doctor is convinced the problem is over, for all intents and purposes," he wrote on March 1, 1965. "Since the victory is already mine, I bear no guilt or shame."
Others remained unconvinced. A psychiatrist who treated Brett in New Mexico, Alan Jacobson, cautioned church officials against permitting him to minister to children, and indicated that Brett agreed.
"We both feel that from a practical standpoint, he should not be returned to a situation where he would be closely exposed to younger people," Jacobson wrote to Curtis.
Still, as it did with other priests who had stayed at Via Coeli, the archdiocese in Santa Fe twice assigned Brett to parishes and schools. And, even as Brett was reassuring church officials that he was effectively cured, there is ample evidence that he was once again targeting boys - and that church officials knew about it.
At one Santa Fe parish, St. Therese of the Infant Jesus in Albuquerque, Brett taught a middle-school-aged boy named Raymond Romero. Brett was a religion teacher but, to the students, he seemed a rebel. He drove a sports car and he smoked a curved pipe, almost like the Calabash pipe that Sherlock Holmes smoked in the movies.
One afternoon after school, Brett invited Romero to his room in the rectory. There, Brett asked Romero if he'd had sex. Romero said he hadn't. Brett said he'd have to check.
Romero recalled that Brett had him lay back on his bed, pulled down his pants, and performed oral sex on him. A few minutes later, standing naked in a bathroom, Brett told Romero that it was his turn.
Stunned, Romero said, he could not find the words to say no. Later, in his office, Brett ordered Romero not to speak of what they'd done. No one would believe him, Brett said, and anyway, Romero was equally culpable.
"You did the same to me that I did to you," Brett told the child.
Romero got on his bike and rode home, his legs pumping as fast as they could. Burning with shame, he thought Brett was right, and vowed to never say a word.
Indeed, Romero said nothing until he contacted the Santa Fe archdiocese about 25 years later, in 1992. Earlier this year, the Santa Fe archdiocese acknowledged that Romero's was just one of "a number" of complaints against Brett during his time in New Mexico.
Bridgeport diocese documents show that as early as 1966, the archbishop of Santa Fe exchanged phone calls with Curtis about concerns that Brett had "a recurrence of his old trouble." Notes of the conversations indicate the two bishops - who have since died - agreed at one point "that laicization was advisable," meaning Brett should be defrocked.
It never happened.
A Test Of Love
His pleas to come home ignored by Curtis, Brett remained in New Mexico, but several times sought respite in Nevada City, Calif., a tiny gold rush town in the foothills of the Sierras outside Sacramento. He was already familiar with the area.
Brett had first come to Nevada City in the early 1960s after meeting Harold Berliner Sr., a local district attorney and devout Catholic, at a liturgical conference. The prosecutor also operated a small publishing business. Brett's talent as a writer was already apparent, and the priest charmed the part-time publisher, enough at least that Brett was welcomed as a houseguest.
Brett stayed several times in a cottage next to the Berliner home and said Mass at St. Patrick's Church in nearby Grass Valley. Even from the pulpit, he made quite an impression. One sermon, assailing the critics of the state's fair-housing laws, made the front page of the Nevada County Nugget in April 1964.
"He certainly mesmerized this town," recalled Mary Ann Berliner, the prosecutor's wife.
The young people of Nevada City, particularly, were in his thrall. As he had in Connecticut, when no one was looking, he showed the boys his darker side.
Once, after being asked to watch the Berliners' children over Christmas while the parents vacationed in Mexico, Brett told their oldest son, Hal Jr., that he had been requested to instruct the teenager in sexual matters. The lessons took place in Brett's cottage, after school.
Brett, the younger Berliner said recently, described physical love, spiritual love, platonic love, and "a special kind of love in which a priest relates to a young boy." He lighted candles and said prayers, wrapping his act in the symbols and rituals of the church.
"It was a test of my love of God to allow him to perform fellatio on me," Berliner said.
Years later, Brett would be accused of molesting a second teenager in Nevada City, a friend of Hal Berliner's. Both Berliner and the second man won settlements from the Bridgeport diocese in the early 1990s.
Looking back, the Berliner family remembers Brett as somewhat immature and prone to tantrums, a complainer who overstayed his welcome. After once cutting his finger in the kitchen, Brett paraded about the house for days with his hand extended in front of him, a minor wound on display. Another time, despite the acres of forested land that surrounds their property, Brett proved incapable of gathering wood for the fireplace. Flummoxed during a blackout, he burned the Christmas tree for warmth.
To this day, the elder Berliner marvels at Brett's intellect. Recently, as he watched a videotape of television ministry by the man who molested his son, Berliner noted the precision of his language, the syntax and diction and the way Brett's gestures matched his words.
But even in the 1960s, not everyone in Nevada City was in Brett's thrall. The pastor of the church in Grass Valley, for example, suspected there was "something strange" about Brett and questioned whether he should be permitted to perform Mass. The Sacramento diocese asked church officials in Bridgeport for details of Brett's past.
A monsignor in Bridgeport, John J. Toomey, responded with a half-truth: Brett was under psychiatric treatment in New Mexico, he wrote, after "an incident of improper conduct of a homosexual nature."
Toomey never mentioned that it had involved a minor.
A `Sex Industry'
Unwanted in Bridgeport, and wearing out his welcome on the West Coast, Brett was given a job in 1969 as chaplain at Calvert Hall College, an all-boys Catholic high school in Baltimore.
Calvert, a low string of buildings set on 32-acres just outside Baltimore, had a student body of 1,250 boys, many of whom hailed from the most prominent and affluent Catholic families in Baltimore. By the early 1970s, Brett had adopted the shaggy hair and mustache popular in those days, and his religion classes were packed with boys who reveled in his irreverence and cutting intellect.
He told his students he was ousted from his last parish for putting ashes on a parishioner's tongue on Ash Wednesday. He referred to Baltimore's new cathedral, Mary Our Queen, as "Mary Our Spleen." And he had such a keen memory that he would bust students for plagiarism when they turned in papers their brothers had written two years earlier.
Brett's advances on teenage boys were more direct than in the past. He didn't bother to cultivate the kinds of close relationships he had in Bridgeport.
As one former Calvert student put it: "There was almost a Brett industry of sex abuse. He picked the cream of the crop."
Frank Vonasek was one of them. As he would explain years later to police detectives, Vonasek said he was walking down the hallway at the start of the 1972-73 school year, when Brett poked his head out of his office and called him in.
Brett proceeded to inform the 14-year-old that he'd heard from some of the other boys that Vonasek was gay, and that one way to prove that he wasn't, was to allow Brett to perform oral sex on him to see if he became aroused. Afterward, Brett told the boy he couldn't tell anyone what occurred because "that will prove that you're gay."
Another Calvert graduate and Brett accuser said he knows of at least eight boys who were molested by the priest at Calvert, and he believes there are probably many more. Brett's days at Calvert came to abrupt end in October 1973, after another teacher voiced suspicions about Brett's conduct with students.
He was fired the next day, and students were told Brett left because he had hepatitis.
Although he was never again assigned to a church or a school, Brett remained a priest in good standing with the Bridgeport and Baltimore dioceses for the next 20 years. He was never reported to the police, nor is there evidence that any church official asked him to request laicization, the process by which a priest is effectively defrocked.
Brett's life in Baltimore blossomed right around the same time the lives of his accusers began to unravel.
Some, like Frechette, came completely unglued. After an unlikely brush with fame - he starred in the 1970 hippie-era film "Zabriskie Point," after being discovered on a Boston street corner by talent scouts searching for the "angriest young man in America" - Frechette died in prison, in an apparent accident, at the age of 27.
Others blamed themselves, and questioned their sexuality. Many, like Cardone, slid into the pattern of so many other victims of childhood sexual abuse: substance abuse, failed relationships and, eventually, years of therapy.
"I started failing in school and skipping Mass on Sunday even though I had dire fears of being struck down dead for doing it," says Cardone, a Chicago resident who describes Brett's actions as "a soul murder." "What this predator did to me for his own selfish ends has colored my life for the past four decades."
Cardone said he has resisted having children because, though he has had no such impulse, he fears that he might abuse them. Two of Brett's other accusers, in fact, did become abusers, the damage rippling outward in an ever-widening circle as the years passed.
Brett, though, was doing well. He pursued a fairly high-profile career in writing and television appearances for the Paulist Fathers, an order of Catholic priests, and led retreats at the Malvern Retreat House for Catholic men in the hills of Pennsylvania.
"He'd be up until two or three in the morning with a line of men outside his door who were waiting to confess their sins," says the Rev. Dennis O'Donnell, rector at Malvern. "And he loved it. At the end of the weekend he was exhausted, but he would say, `This is what my priesthood is all about.'"
Up in front of a roomful of men one night, Brett captivated them with a stirring homily about the gospel of John, in which Jesus asks the disciple Peter to lead him.
Walking among his entranced listeners, Brett told the men they would one day lead him, too. People rose to their feet applauding.
"It was one of the most gripping talks about religion I ever heard," says Wayne Ruth, a close friend of Brett's and a Baltimore businessman, who was a student at Calvert Hall when Brett served as chaplain there.
O'Donnell says he was with Brett on the November day in 1993 when Brett was summoned by Bridgeport Bishop Edward Egan, now a cardinal and archbishop of New York, to answer questions about new molestation accusations then trickling in from New Mexico and California. In addition, Martinelli, by then living in Wisconsin, had filed a federal lawsuit against Brett and the diocese in Connecticut.
The diocese - which had avoided repercussions from Brett's actions for three decades - was now facing costly litigation and negative public exposure.
Egan - who knew some of Brett's history but had made no move to suspend or defrock him and, in fact, had considered letting him return to Connecticut - now asked Brett to leave the priesthood. Brett agreed, and returned to Malvern.
"He was just devastated," O'Donnell said. "He said there was one person he had molested - I don't think he used that word - when he was first ordained. He didn't know what to do. That was the last time I saw him."
Three months later, Brett changed his mind. He rescinded the petition for laicization that Egan had asked him to sign and in a letter to the bishop accused him of violating canon law by pressuring him to leave the priesthood.
Before the year was out, Brett had dropped out of sight.
Ruth, who was granted power of attorney by Brett to handle the sale of his home in 1994, claims he knew nothing about his friend's problems and didn't suspect something was wrong. But it was obvious even to the man who bought Brett's rowhouse that the priest had left in a hurry.
"Everything was still in the house, like he said he was going to the store and just never came back," Virgil Gross recalled.
As Martinelli's case headed to trial, his lawyers hired a private investigator in the hopes they could find Brett and hold him accountable. They failed. Diocesan officials testified in court that they had no idea where he was and couldn't reach him.
But Ruth knew - he'd visited him in St. Maarten, according to Brett's neighbors there - and so did Brett's former psychologist, a professor from Johns Hopkins University. The Paulists, too, were paying him at least until 1997. And, back in the Bridgeport diocese, two of Egan's own priests knew.
None of them spoke up.
In 1999, when criminal charges were brought against Brett in Baltimore and the FBI's fugitive task force began looking for him, Brett's friends still remained silent. The warrants were later withdrawn by the Baltimore state's attorney's office because of a legal technicality.
Martinelli eventually won his case, after jurors found that the Bridgeport diocese concealed evidence Brett had been abusing teenage boys in the early 1960s. But the victory was bittersweet, because Brett had never been forced to stand trial.
It seemed, for a time, that he might have slipped away for good. But after a six-month investigation, The Courant found the 65-year-old priest last month living a comfortable life on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, his hideaway and home for the last nine years.
Brett's neighbors there, who had no idea he was a priest, said they frequently noticed teenage boys visiting his condominium.
To date, at least 15 men have made accusations against Brett in Baltimore. In Connecticut, the diocese is still settling claims on crimes that were alleged to have happened 40 years ago.
His accusers, to a man, want Brett extradited and prosecuted.
His old friends, though, struggle still to reconcile the Brett they knew with the man they read about today.
"I know he probably sounds like a monster, but he was one of the nicest, most charming people I ever met," Ruth said. "I guess that's how these things are."
Visit www.ctnow.com/brett for more on this story.