Former priest found guilty on 24 sex charges involving Inuit children
Eric Dejaeger leaves an Iqaluit, Nunavut courtroom Jan. 20, 2011. He is now awaiting further sentencing on another four counts. (Chris Windeyer / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, September 12, 2014 10:18AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 12, 2014 10:24PM EDT
IQALUIT, Nunavut -- A sex abuse case that convulsed a remote northern hamlet for years has ended with a defrocked Roman Catholic priest being convicted on 24 of 80 sex-related charges he faced involving Inuit children more than 30 years ago.
After pleading guilty to eight of the counts at the start of his trial, former Oblate Eric Dejaeger will be sentenced for 32 sex crimes that range from indecent assault to bestiality.
Justice Robert Kilpatrick's verdict brings closure to a saga that has ranged across two continents and raised questions about the role of the Catholic Church and Canadian officials in delaying justice for victims still suffering mental scars from horrific attacks.
"This judgment contains graphic descriptions of sexual activity that some may find disturbing and offensive" is how Kilpatrick's 212-page verdict begins.
In all, Dejaeger was convicted of 24 counts of indecent assault, one of unlawful confinement, two of buggery, three of unlawful sexual intercourse, one of sexual assault and one of bestiality. The victims include 12 boys, 10 girls and a dog he abused in front of two children. Most were between the ages of eight and 12, although they could have been as young as four and as old as 18.
The offences occurred between 1978 and 1982 in the hamlet of Igloolik, when the now 67-year-old was the Oblate missionary. They took place in common rooms in the mission building, in Dejaeger's bedroom and on the land when he was the guest of families hunting and fishing.
Some children were fondled on Dejaeger's lap as their friends played around them. One was assaulted as she helped Dejaeger look for Christmas ornaments.
One witness described how he and his friend, about seven at the time, were raped one after the other. Another told how she was taped to Dejaeger's bed and attacked from behind.
Witness after witness told court that Dejaeger used his position as Igloolik's missionary to trap them into sex, threatening them with hellfire or separation from their families if they told. Sometimes, food dangled before hungry children was his lure.
Still, Kilpatrick noted that time had degraded much of the testimony before him.
"Judges and juries do not possess divine insight into the soul of witnesses who testify in a legal proceeding. Decisions must be made on the basis of evidence alone, not intuition or guesswork," he wrote.
"The quantity and quality of the evidence available to the court in this case has been substantially weakened by the passage of time. The reliability of the Crown's evidence on many counts is suspect. This is reflected by the results of this trial."
The Crown's case was also weakened by defence suggestions that many of the witnesses had conferred before the trial to hone their testimony.
But nobody doubted the searing emotion and pain the trial dredged up. It was common to hear witnesses howling and weeping outside court after their testimony.
Friday's verdict was only the latest blight in Dejaeger's long and ugly history in Canada.
He has already served a five-year sentence on 11 counts of sexual assault and indecent assault against children in Baker Lake, Nunavut, where he was posted after Igloolik.
It was after he had served that sentence, in 1995, that he learned RCMP were investigating his activities in Igloolik. He was eventually charged, but before his court date arrived he fled to his native Belgium.
Oblate officials have acknowledged that they knew Dejaeger was about to leave. They have also said that Canadian justice officials suggested that the easiest thing was for him to simply leave Canada, where he had become a citizen. They have said Dejaeger was told he wouldn't be bothered if he stayed away.
For 16 years, he lived quietly in homes maintained by the Oblates, even though an international warrant had been filed for his arrest.
Eventually, dogged reporting by Belgian journalists revealed that Dejaeger was living in that country illegally. He was returned to Canada in 2011, touching off an Arctic blizzard of unresolved anguish in Igloolik.
"I felt numb," one victim told The Canadian Press. "All the memories are coming back. I'm constantly numb all over. I can't think straight because everything keeps coming back."
Nunavut's Health Department sent an extra social worker and mental health nurse to Igloolik to help residents deal with stress. The territory's manager of mental health spent a week in town after Dejaeger's return.
The hamlet's Roman Catholic priest left town because of threats.
Igloolik was quiet Friday morning, said community justice worker William Qamukaq, who spent the previous several days talking to witnesses to let them know the verdict was coming.
"The victims are certainly affected," he said. "There are mixed feelings."