The apparent suicide in Maryland of a Bridgeport priest accused of sexual abuse is a clear sign the Roman Catholic Church must face the scandal directly, Bishop William Lori said Friday.
“The very sadness of these days also teaches us that we cannot veer from the path of facing the crisis that besets the church with honesty, vigor, faith and with compassion,” Lori said.
The priest, identified by church officials as the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, was found hanged at a psychiatric hospital Thursday less than three weeks after resigning from his parish. Bietighofer, 64, had been sent to St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., to undergo psychiatric evaluation after the allegations surfaced.
A nurse found the body, said the Rev. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist who directs the center.
It was the second apparent suicide of a clergyman since the sex abuse scandal engulfed the church.
Lori said the “distressing circumstances” of Bietighofer’s death did not detract from the good he did during 37 years as a priest.
“In the face of such overwhelming sorrow, what can we learn?” Lori said. “We learn once again that every person, without exception, has dignity and worth in God’s eyes. … We learn that it is best for all concerned when issues of abuse are dealt with immediately, as they happen, rather than years later.”
Two men told diocesan officials that Bietighofer abused them when they were boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, church officials said. Bietighofer, who was assistant pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Bridgeport, resigned April 29.
At the time, Lori said the allegations were credible enough to warrant immediate action.
Bridgeport attorney Jason Tremont, who represented Bietighofer’s two accusers, said about eight others also have claimed Bietighofer abused them. He is investigating their allegations.
The Connecticut Post reported that the men accused Bietighofer of fondling them when they were children when he was assigned to Blessed Sacrament Church in Bridgeport.
Bietighofer told the Post he didn’t know anything about the allegations. Church officials said they weren’t aware of the allegations until seeing the newspaper’s story.
Church officials did not report the allegations against Bietighofer to authorities, but had said they would cooperate if asked for information.
Bietighofer had served in the Bridgeport diocese since he was ordained in 1965, except for two yearlong stints in Peru in the 1970s and 1980s.
St. Luke treats priests and nuns for a variety of mental health problems, including alcoholism, depression and pedophilia. About a quarter of the institute’s 65 beds are used by clergy undergoing treatment for sexual abuse problems. Its residential programs are open to the religious; outpatient programs are open to anyone.
It has become one of the best-known treatment centers and is used heavily by U.S. and some international dioceses.
Tremont said his clients had mixed emotions upon learning of the priest’s death.
“It’s certainly something we’re not happy about. The victims think that any loss of life is unfortunate,” Tremont said. “The victims are still glad they came forward. Their goal was to prevent sexual abuse from happening again to any minor.”
Rossetti said every incoming patient is screened to determine if he is a suicide risk. Those deemed at risk are placed under “steady surveillance,” he said.
At least 177 priests have been dismissed or resigned across the country since the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston early this year.
Last month, the Rev. Don Rooney, 48, of the Cleveland Diocese shot himself to death after being accused of molesting a girl. On Monday, the Rev. Maurice Blackwell was shot and seriously wounded outside his Baltimore home, allegedly by a man who accused him of abuse nine years ago.