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.

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