Roman Catholic Bishop William E. Lori Saturday announced sanctions against two pastors who failed to tell the Bridgeport diocese that they knew a notorious pedophile priest was living secretly for nearly a decade on a Caribbean island.
The Rev. David W. Howell, of St. Joseph Parish in South Norwalk, and the Rev. Gerald T. Devore, of St. Maurice Parish in Stamford, were temporarily stripped of their duties and ordered confined to religious houses outside the diocese. There, for a period yet to be determined, they are to follow strict regimens of reflection, prayer and penance – a punishment considered the harshest possible under church law, a diocesan spokesman said.
“I am gravely disappointed,” said Lori, who has publicly claimed several times that he hoped the missing priest, the Rev. Laurence F.X. Brett, would be found and brought to justice. The pastors’ actions violated diocese policy, he said, and threatened to undermine “the trust of the faithful in their pastors and in the church itself.”
The sanctions followed a Courant report last week that Brett, accused of molesting more than two dozen children and young men in four states, has been living on St. Maarten. While in hiding, Brett maintained contact with a handful of friends from his days as a clergyman – including Howell and, though he was not named in the story, Devore.
In an interview last week, Howell denied knowing Brett’s whereabouts. Devore was not available for comment.
But during subsequent interviews with diocesan officials, Howell and Devore admitted that they knew Brett’s whereabouts and expressed remorse. Under church law, failing to divulge that information constitutes disloyalty to the bishop and is considered a “moral failing,” diocesan spokesman Joseph McAleer said.
He said the diocese will tell authorities in New Mexico, California and St. Maarten that Brett has been located. Earlier in the week, the diocese notified prosecutors in Maryland and Connecticut, where at least a dozen men have accused Brett of assaulting them as children
As Brett’s accusers said they were gratified by Lori’s announcement, parishioners at both churches said they were stunned at learning the news during afternoon Mass.
“I have a letter I don’t want to read, but the bishop says I have to,” the Rev. Bernard A. Keefe, parochial vicar, announced at the end of the 4 p.m. Mass at St. Maurice.
As Keefe read, most parishioners stared in disbelief. Some shook their heads. Others turned and looked at each other blankly. Less than 15 minutes earlier, the congregation had prayed for healing for victims of sexual abuse by priests.
“I’m shocked,” Ann Rich, 23, said later near the front steps of the chiseled stone church. “I would never have expected anything like this.”
Since Brett’s disappearance in 1993, the church has said it has had no official contact with him. The top aide to former Bridgeport Bishop Edward Egan, now the New York cardinal, testified in connection with a federal lawsuit in 1997 that the diocese did not know Brett’s whereabouts.
In addition to the two priests, The Courant reported that Brett has been in contact with laymen in Baltimore and has been financially supported by an order of Catholic priests in Washington. A branch of that order, the Paulist Fathers, for which Brett once worked, sent him checks through an offshore company.
The diocesan spokesman said that Lori has asked the Paulists for details of their contact with Brett. The Paulists could not be reached for comment late Saturday.
In the interview last Tuesday, Howell denied knowing Brett’s whereabouts and said he could not explain why his name and the parish fax number appeared on a memorandum written on the letterhead of the company through which Brett accepted payments from the Paulists.
McAleer said the diocese believes Devore and Howell were merely friends with the disgraced priest. “It was a friendship, but it did not, to our understanding, include financial support,” he said.
Lori was not available for comment Saturday, he said. Nor were Devore and Howell, who were traveling to the religious houses after being told of their punishments a day earlier.
“This will be a very humbling experience we hope for each pastor,” McAleer said. He declined to identify the religious houses to which the priests were sent.
Howell, 60, has been pastor of St. Joseph Parish since 1986. Devore, 65, has been pastor of St. Maurice Parish since 1985.
Brett was sent out of the Bridgeport diocese in 1964 after he admitted biting a young man during nonconsensual oral sex. For three decades, still working under the auspices of the Bridgeport diocese, he traveled the country in seeming exile. Allegations of abuse followed him everywhere.
He was named in a federal civil lawsuit in 1993 but was dropped as a defendant when he could not be located. Maryland authorities obtained two warrants against him, but later dropped them because the statute of limitations had expired.
That the priests in contact with Brett would come from the Bridgeport diocese is particularly notable since Lori, in his 17 months as bishop, has made confronting the crisis of clergy sex abuse a priority. He was a member of a panel that drafted a nationwide policy adopted by bishops at a conference in June, a charter intended to address the sex abuse crisis that has rocked the Catholic Church.
“I expect every priest, deacon, and lay employee to cooperate with Church authorities and civil authorities in the investigation of sexual abuse,” Lori wrote. “I count on the wholehearted cooperation of my co-workers in fulfilling the policy of the Diocese of Bridgeport so that young people can be protected and perpetrators brought to justice.”
Howell and Devore are to receive training on the prevention of sexual misconduct and on the mandated reporting responsibilities of clergy, the diocese said. All the priests and deacons in the diocese will receive a written reminder of their responsibilities.
According to the statement, the diocese will also study whether Brett can be permanently removed from the priesthood. Egan requested that Brett agree to leave the priesthood in 1993, after three allegations of old abuse came in rapid succession. Brett agreed, but later reconsidered, church records show.
This is the second time in little over a year that St. Maurice has been drawn into the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church. Last May, the Rev. John Castaldo, who did parish work at St. Maurice, was arrested in an Internet sex sting. He was later convicted of using the Internet to attempt to lure a young boy into a sexual liaison.
Some parishioners said Saturday that Devore appeared to have been caught up in the code of silence that for so many years kept sexual abuse by priests under wraps.
“I can’t believe he would hide something like this,” said Laura DeFelice. “This took me off my feet. I’m stunned.”
Likewise, parishioners who attended Saturday afternoon Mass at St. Joseph’s Church were puzzled by the role that Howell played in helping keep Brett’s whereabouts secret.
John Verel, cantor for St. Joseph’s Church, said he has known Howell for more than 20 years and has found the priest to be “a terrific man.”
But, he said, after reading The Courant’s story Thursday, he expected “there would be something said this weekend” about Howell’s knowledge of Brett’s whereabouts.
Brett’s victims said Saturday they were gratified that Lori moved so quickly and had meted out the harshest punishment possible under canon law.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse for a priest than to lose his parish,” said Anthony Cardone, who recently settled with the diocese a complaint that he was abused in Connecticut in the early 1960s. “It’s a big blow.”
Another of Brett’s accusers, a man from Albuquerque who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he suspected knowledge of Brett’s whereabouts was more widespread still, a belief rooted not in evidence but in the history of betrayal.
“I guess my perception of it is they’re still lying,” he said. “Let me tell you something: A lot more than those two guys knew what he did.”