Ex-priest, returned to Canada from Belgium, faces trial on sex charges with Inuit children

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A former Roman Catholic priest goes on trial Monday on multiple sex-related charges involving Inuit children in a tiny arctic hamlet nearly 18 years after he fled to his homeland of Belgium to avoid prosecution.

Eric Dejaeger has pleaded not guilty to 76 sex-related charges and will be tried by a judge alone. The charges involve 41 complainants and 26 people from the hamlet of Igloolik on the Melville Peninsula are expected to testify.

Dejaeger was returned to Canada from Belgium in January 2011 for an immigration violation rather than on an extradition order. A Belgian journalist realized that Dejaeger had lost his Belgian citizenship in 1977 when he became a naturalized Canadian. He was kicked out because he had been living in Belgium since 1995 without a visa.

An Inuit woman who was among the alleged victims in Igloolik said she was relieved that the former priest is finally going to face trial..

"It's almost a relief," said the woman, who cannot be identified under a court order. "We were told that he was never going to be found. And when he came back to life and came to Canada, that was a shock to all of us."

The charges against Dejaeger include allegations from February 1995 when he was originally charged with three counts of indecent assault and three counts of buggery, a charge no longer in the Criminal Code. They relate to his time as a priest in Igloolik between 1978 and 1982, where he was sent to serve the indigenous community by the Belgian Oblates, an order of Catholic priests.

In 1995, Dejaeger had just completed a five-year sentence, most of it served in a halfway house and on probation, on 11 counts of sexual assault and indecent assault against children in Baker Lake, where he was posted after serving in Igloolik in what is now Nunavut Province. He was scheduled to return to court on the Igloolik charges on June 13, 1995, but never showed up. By then, he was in Europe.

A Canadian arrest warrant was immediately issued, but the disgraced priest was able to live quietly in Oblate communities in France and Belgium until he was returned in 2011.

A top official of the Oblate order, Georges Vervust, alleged in a Belgian documentary that Canadian officials quietly allowed Dejaeger to leave the country.

"What I have heard is that he got advice from people from the Justice Department, off the record, that he should leave," Vervust said in the Belgian documentary.

He confirmed his comments to The Canadian Press. In an email to The Canadian Press, Vervust said: "I heard that Eric was told — off the record — to leave Canada by some persons of the police and his lawyer and some Oblates.

"At that time it was thought that was the best thing to do. With hindsight, it turns out to have been a mistake."

Internal Oblate reports obtained by The Canadian Press show that Dejaeger was already planning to leave Canada just a month after the Igloolik charges were filed in 1995. He wrote Oblate officials in Belgium proposing a return, and was invited to come back in April 1995. With his Belgian and Canadian passports in hand, he left Canada and the Oblates were informed on June 20, 1995 that he had arrived in Belgium.

Justice Canada has declined comment. Dejaeger's lawyer in 1995, John Scurfield, died in 2009. The Canadian Press could not reach Dejaeger's current lawyer for comment.

Pierre Rousseau, who was Justice Canada's regional director for the Northwest Territories, which then included Nunavut, from 1992 to 1998, said he was not involved with decisions regarding Dejaeger's 1995 trial. He told The Canadian Press the agency was understaffed at the time and handling a number of major sex abuse cases, and the charges against Dejaeger did not stand out. The number of charges against Dejaeger didn't balloon until the late 1990s when more alleged victims from Igloolik began coming forward, and new charges were added after his return to Canada.