Fifteen-year search for pedophile Canadian priest ends — with him going free

The bearded man stares steadily from Interpol’s “wanted” poster, his hooded winter parka unzipped, large tinted glasses shading his eyes. Canadian Eric Dejaeger was a code red fugitive, the international police organization’s highest alert.

Dejaeger’s offences were listed in capital letters: CRIMES AGAINST CHILDREN.

What wasn’t listed was his profession: Roman Catholic priest.

The RCMP’s pursuit of Dejaeger, who left footprints in the Canadian Arctic, at Lourdes’ holy grotto and around a quiet Flemish Oblate house, was a fruitless 15-year hunt. The case appeared dormant. Then, on Sept. 13, the 63-year-old surrendered to Belgian police in the city of Leuven where he was interviewed — and, stunningly, released.

Belgian federal authorities said they could not begin extradition proceedings against Dejaeger — who in 1990 pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting eight children in the Northwest Territories, and who was later charged with assaults in Igloolik, Nunavut — because Canada’s Justice Department hadn’t filed a formal extradition request.

“Why? Why? Why? I just keep asking ‘Why?’” said Igloolik Mayor Lucassie Ivalu. He and others in the remote village of about 1,700 in the Northwest Passage, were unaware Dejaeger was living and working freely in Europe and that the outstanding charges had not been tried.

“We didn’t even know he was hiding,” Ivalu said. “We thought the authorities had already dealt with him because it was so many years ago that we heard he’d been (accused of) abusing (Igloolik) boys . . . When I heard he’d turned himself in, I was really shocked and angry.”

Barry McLaren, the Iqaluit-based chief federal prosecutor in Nunavut assigned to the case, said he didn’t know why it took so long to find the Dejaeger. He described the matter as “incredibly complicated.”

“It’s an unusual case for this territory, it’s also an unusual case for the country,” McLaren said.

Officials with the Justice Department would not comment on the case, directing Star queries about extradition to Belgian officials. The Belgian justice ministry office that deals with extraditions did not reply to written questions.

Canada’s apparent extradition bungle is just one of the puzzling twists in a tale of faith and betrayal that began 32 years ago in Igloolik, which sits on an island in the Northwest Passage.

Suspicion that fellow priests helped hide Dejaeger in Europe, confusion over the Belgian-born cleric’s citizenship, concern a known sex offender crossed borders undetected and anger at the glacial pace in tracking him are among the issues raised by the case. There are few answers for northern residents demanding to know why it continues to drag on.

Anger like Ivalu’s is rising around the world as the ongoing sexual abuse crisis swamps the Catholic Church and its spiritual leader Pope Benedict, with too-frequent revelations of children being molested by clergy.

The most recent allegations are from Quebec. Radio-Canada reported Thursday that a former member of the Order of Holy Cross says the religious group was aware of allegations of sexual abuse by Holy Cross brothers, but did nothing.

A nine-page document written by former brother Wilson Kennedy lists specific abuse allegations over the years at Montreal’s College Notre Dame, and names a dozen Holy Cross brothers as alleged abusers. Radio-Canada also reported the document shows how alleged abusers at the private school were not reported to the police but allowed to remain as teachers or support staff.

In southern Ontario, a priest from the Congregation of St. Basil is facing sexual assault charges in Windsor and Toronto. The Windsor charges against Rev. William Hodgson Marshall are from incidents in the 1950s and 1980s, while the Toronto allegations are from 1953 involving a former St. Michael’s College student, then 15.

Priestly abuse has a deeper, darker meaning in Canadian communities like Igloolik, where generations of children were torn from parents and shipped to residential Christian schools. Roman Catholic missionaries operated many of the schools where native children were sexually, physically and mentally abused by clerics. In some native communities, the cycle of abuse has continued.

“This cycle goes on and on for many years and that is why I’m so angry at this guy,” said Ivalu. “And this is why I’m so angry at the RCMP for not taking (seriously) what the little boys said (in accusing the priest.) Why would these little boys, who now as adults, make this up for so long?”

The RCMP would not comment on the cross-Atlantic Dejaeger investigation. But this is what’s known:

The Belgian-born priest, who became a Canadian citizen in 1977, is wanted for three counts of indecent assault on a male and three counts of buggery for incidents involving minors and alleged to have occurred between 1978 and 1982 in Igloolik. These charges were laid after he completed a five-year sentence in April of 1995 (a penitentiary stint, a halfway house then probation) for abusing children in Baker Lake, then part of the Northwest Territories, now part of Nunavut. Dejaeger left Canada before his first court date in June of 1995 and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

Six years later, the Interpol red alert was circulated. Nine years after that, in May of this year, Belgian journalist Douglas De Coninck published an article detailing Dejaeger’s life on the lam. The priest worked with pilgrims in Lourdes and participated in masses. A member of the Oblate Order of Mary Immaculate, he was living at the order’s villa in Blanden. Several months after the article appeared, Dejaeger voluntarily turned himself in at the Leuven police station.

De Coninck used documents compiled for magistrate Godelieve Halsberghe’s abuse inquiry into Belgium’s Catholic clergy to accuse local Oblates of lying about their knowledge of Dejaeger’s criminal troubles and hiding him from the law. It was also reported the priest falsely claimed for many years that he was a Belgian citizen — a right he officially gave up in 1977 (according to Belgian law at the time) when he became Canadian.

What happened during the 1980s in Baker Lake, a native Canadian village of about 1,000, offers disturbing insight into how the priest preyed on trusting families.

One of the victims was a boy he used as a sexual partner for a period of between five to seven years, starting when the boy was 10 or 12. Sexual activity took place in the mission residence where the boy visited frequently for several years and in other Baker Lake homes where Dejaeger house-sat. Dejaeger and the boy regularly showered together and slept in the same bed. He even took the boy on a long trip to Europe.

In 1990, Dejaeger pleaded guilty to nine sexual assault charges involving boys and girls ranging in ages 9 to 14 when the attacks began.

Oddly, Justice Ted Richard of the Northwest Territories Supreme Court wrote in his sentence decision that Dejaeger was not a pedophile even though “it does not appear that he stopped this activity on his own but only when he was caught.” It’s unclear how he was caught.

Dejaeger admitted to, among other sexual acts, having anal intercourse with boys and digital vaginal penetration with girls. Yet Richard seemed to praise the priest’s restraint:

“Because of the age of the victims of these assaults, consent is not an issue or a factor to be considered. However, it should be noted in fairness to the offender here that no violence was used in committing these assaults,” Richard wrote 20 years ago.

Winnipeg lawyer Rheal Teffaine, who represents the Manitoba diocese of Churchill-Baie d’Hudson — which includes Baker Lake and Igloolik — said the diocese did not realize the extent of Dejaeger’s abuses.

“We didn’t know this guy was a bloody monster,’’ said Teffaine.

In the wake of the Baker Lake crimes, the diocese created a “healing fund” and settled every civil suit without making victims go to court.

The lawyer said he and others in the diocese “lost sight” of Dejaeger when he want to jail and are puzzled how he was able to leave Canada in 1995.

“We cannot figure out how he got through the border. He had a criminal record.”

Belgium and Canada are reportedly discussing a possible extradition of Dejaeger. For now, he remains free.

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