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A priest who resigned from a Bridgeport parish recently amid allegations of sexual misconduct committed suicide Thursday at a prominent psychiatric hospital in Maryland, the second such incident linked to the sex scandal now gripping the Roman Catholic Church.
Authorities said the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, 64, hanged himself in his room at St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, one of the nation's premier hospitals for the treatment of troubled clergy.
Bietighofer, who had been sent there for evaluation, resigned late last month as assistant pastor of St. Andrew Parish after two men complained to the diocese that he had molested them two decades earlier. He was accused of fondling the men, now in their 30s, at Blessed Sacrament Church on the city's east side when they were as young as 11.
"The allegations from the two gentlemen were credible enough to warrant immediate action," Bridgeport Bishop William Lori said at the time.
Two other men have since made similar claims publicly.
His death comes five weeks after another priest, the Rev. Don A. Rooney, who had been accused of molesting a girl, shot himself to death in Ohio. And on Monday, a priest was shot and seriously wounded in Baltimore by a man who accused him of abuse nine years ago.
News of Bietighofer's suicide stirred up a welter of conflicting emotions, one of the alleged victims said Thursday evening.
"We wanted justice, we didn't want a death," said Mario Jaiman, 36. "This is not what we were looking for, and it comes with a barrage of feelings and maybe some guilt on our parts."
Still, although Jaiman said he feels for Bietighofer's family, he said he and the others do not regret their decision to come forward.
"I would do it again if I had to," the former altar boy said.
Bietighofer had served in the Bridgeport diocese since he was ordained in1965, except for two yearlong stints in Peru during the 1970s and 1980s.
In a statement Thursday, Lori said he was saddened by Bietighofer's death.
"My heart goes out to his family and his brother priests who mourn the loss of a brother, a friend and a colleague," Lori said. "To parishioners and to all those whom Father Bietighofer assisted during the course of his priestly ministry, I extend my sincere sympathy and prayers."
When Bietighofer's accusers came forward last month, the Bridgeport diocese said a review of diocesan records showed no other complaints against him.
But sealed court records obtained by The Courant show that a senior diocesan official acknowledged he was aware of a complaint against Bietighofer as long ago as 1996.
During a deposition taken that year in connection with a series of abuse lawsuits against the diocese, Monsignor Andrew Cusack testified that a mother in Bietighofer's parish complained that he was removing the trousers of children and spanking them.
Cusack said there was nothing in the mother's complaint that suggested Bietighofer was sexually abusing the children. He said Bietighofer, whose parish was in a Hispanic neighborhood, had told him disciplining children by removing their trousers was the custom of that culture.
Cusack testified that he told Bietighofer to discontinue the practice and that Bietighofer said he did.
In another sealed deposition taken in connection with those abuse lawsuits, then-Bishop Edward Egan acknowledged that he had been made aware of the complaint. Egan, now the cardinal of New York, testified he was aware that Bietighofer was among seven priests whose personnel files plaintiffs' lawyers sought to review. The lawyers were unsuccessful, and Bietighofer was not named as a defendant.
One prominent psychiatric expert said Thursday that, although cases are rare, there have been several other instances of suicide by accused priests in the past decade -- including one in 1996 by a priest, the Rev. Ted Llanos, who had been a patient at St. Luke.
A.W. Sipe, a priest and psychiatrist, said he suspects that priests who abuse children cannot cope when they are forced to reconcile their public selves with their private pathological behavior.
"It's when that is shattered, when that split is shattered, that their egos cannot take it," Sipe said. "When they are confronted with that split, their egos disintegrate and they can't adapt."
St. Luke is among the top institutions for the treatment of clergy troubled by addictions, sexual disorders and other afflictions.
The only official comment from St. Luke Institute was a one-page statement from the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, president and chief executive officer. "We are sad to inform you that a client here for evaluation died today, apparently by suicide," he said. He described the incident as a "tragic event for all of us. We commend the deceased to the mercy of God and offer our heartfelt prayers for the individual and family members."