By: Joe Strupp
For nearly 10 years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., had been looking for the Rev. Laurence F.X. Brett, a priest accused of being a pedophile.
Reporter Eric Rich of The Hartford Courant found him in less than six months.
Rich’s search — employing time-tested reporter’s tools ranging from public-record scans to stakeouts — began with a rumor. It ended with the discovery of Brett on St. Martin Island in the West Indies, and with two priests punished for hiding him.
The fact-finding started shortly after the Courant drew national attention in March by reporting information from sealed court documents related to settlements between the Bridgeport diocese and several victims who’d accused Brett and other priests of abuse. “I had heard at that time that he was in the Caribbean,” Rich told E&P. “I was able to locate people who were willing to talk about it.”
Brett, who also served in the Archdiocese of Baltimore for many years, has been accused by more than two dozen victims of abuse dating back more than 30 years. In February 1999, the state’s attorney’s office in Baltimore County issued two warrants for Brett’s arrest, later withdrawn when he could not be found.
Between this March and July, Rich interviewed numerous sources in Bridgeport and Baltimore, and determined that Brett was on St. Martin. The reporter also tracked down one of the priest’s friends who allegedly arranged for him to hide out.
On Aug. 12, Rich and a photographer went to the West Indies island. Starting on the French side (half the island is held by France, half by the Netherlands), they put their best shoe-leather reporting to work over two days. “We went through public records, [and] talked to police, the mayor, detectives who handled sex-assault cases, and people from three Catholic churches,” Rich recalled. “We decided he wasn’t there.”
When the duo went to the Dutch side, they received their first break through a title search that indicated Brett owned a condominium. Staking out the condo for two days revealed nothing, so the journalists went back into public-records search mode and found a listing for another Brett residence, which they also staked out and where they eventually spotted the priest walking his dog.
“It was a very one-sided conversation,” Rich said of his attempts to interview Brett. “He really had nothing to win by saying anything to me. When I asked if he was still molesting boys, he said, ‘No.'”
Rich talked to people living near Brett’s island home and pieced together his life during the past few years, which reportedly included help from two Bridgeport diocese priests and others who provided financial assistance.
Upon returning to Connecticut, Rich and Courant staff writer Elizabeth Hamilton wrote a story that detailed Brett’s life on the island and ran Aug. 29. Two days later, Bishop William E. Lori of the Bridgeport diocese issued sanctions against two priests for helping Brett remain in seclusion.
Courant Editor Brian Toolan, who said the trip to the West Indies cost about $5,000, cited the reporters’ work as a good example of using all possible resources. “It was the product of a couple of months of diligence,” he said. “These were good reporters who had a sense of things.”