A demon's death in paradise

The aiding and abetting of the pedophile priest and fugitive, Laurence Brett, continued long after his days at Calvert Hall College in Towson, and it wasn't monsignors and bishops who gave him cover. Even in exile in the Caribbean, this old abuser — described by the newspaper that hunted him down as "a predator blessed with charm" — got some help from friends, including at least two other priests, as well as a Maryland businessman and a Baltimore psychologist.

Father Larry, as he was known, seduced teenage boys, but he apparently could get grown men to do things for him, too.

Mr. Brett, who reportedly died on the island of Martinique on Christmas Eve, merits Top 10 standing among the most notorious American figures in the Catholic Church's gone-global priest-abuse scandal. He was a serial abuser. Years ago, his superiors moved him from assignment to assignment — from Connecticut to New Mexico, California and Mexico — and apparently never dealt with accusations as they surfaced. What to do with a priest who molests boys? Send him to an all-boys school. He was the chaplain at Calvert Hall from 1969 to 1973, and he served some Maryland parishes during that time as well.

For several years after that, he lived in Baltimore and worked for a religious publisher in Washington. The accusations finally caught up with him in the 1990s. He was alleged to have abused more than two dozen altar boys and other children in four states and Mexico. His victims at Calvert Hall started to come forward, eventually 15 in all.

By the time all that happened, in 1993, Mr. Brett had fled Baltimore.

As more and more victims came forward, the FBI and a private detective tried to track him down. Because Father Larry's roots were in Connecticut — he was a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport — reporters for The Hartford Court (a sister paper of The Baltimore Sun) joined in the hunt. They found him about 10 years ago on the tropical French-Dutch island of St. Maarten. During their investigation, Courant reporters discovered that, while on the lam, Father Larry had been in contact with:

•Two priests from Bridgeport. (They were later publicly admonished by their bishop for having contact with Brett.)

•A Maryland contractor, Wayne Ruth, who had served as the head of fundraising for the restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. (A friend who had helped Mr. Brett sell his house in Baltimore in 1994 and who had visited him on St. Maarten, Mr. Ruth later stepped down from his position with the basilica project.)

•A psychologist from the Johns Hopkins University, Gregory Lehne, who had been Mr. Brett's therapist. (He denied knowing that Mr. Brett had been wanted by the FBI, even as he visited him in the Caribbean).

•The Paulist Fathers, an order of Catholic priests in Washington. A branch of the Paulists had supported Mr. Brett financially for years on St. Maarten by sending checks to an offshore company he had created in 1996.

The Courant learned that Mr. Brett had a comfortable life on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, living in a condominium near an opulent resort, with teenagers and young men frequently visiting his home. That was in 2002. But Mr. Brett soon disappeared again. He managed to avoid being brought home to face criminal charges or civil suits. He died after reportedly falling down stairs in his Martinique apartment, a demon's death in paradise. He was 73.

A few years ago, I visited one of Mr. Brett's Calvert Hall victims at his home in Pennsylvania. For 30 years, Bob Russell hadn't told anyone about what Mr. Brett had done to him — twice — when he was a 15-year-old sophomore. Filled with guilt and shame, he thought he'd been Mr. Brett's only victim. In 2001, he learned otherwise. And a year after that, he found himself at a meeting of Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholic laity that formed in the wake of the abuse scandal.

It was there that Bob Russell came to understand the scope of this awful thing — the extent of the pain caused over decades by clergy who had used their special position to exploit children and who had been protected by superiors and peers and friends. Russell stepped into a meeting room and found a wall covered with photographs of about 35 men and women — all had been victims of abuse, and all had committed suicide.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM.

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