IQALUIT, Nunavut - A former priest who this week is to face 76 sex charges involving Inuit children may have been tried years ago but for a quiet nod from Canada that allowed him to leave the country, says a church leader.
Georges Vervust is the top official with the Belgian Oblates, an order of Catholic priests that sent Eric Dejaeger to several communities in what is now Nunavut.
Vervust sheds light on questions that have troubled Dejaeger's alleged victims for nearly a decade: How was a man facing child abuse charges allowed to leave the country days before his trial? And why did it take so long for him to be returned?
"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 a Belgian documentary. He confirmed his comments to The Canadian Press.
Dejaeger's trial beginning Monday includes allegations from Feb. 19, 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 the community of Igloolik between 1978 and 1982.
Dejaeger has pleaded not guity and will be tried by judge alone. There was no preliminary hearing in the case, as the accused waived his right to one.
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 Igloolik.
He was scheduled to return to court on the Igloolik charges on June 13, 1995, but never showed. By then, he was in Europe.
An 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 early 2011.
Internal Oblate reports obtained by The Canadian Press show that Dejaeger was planning to leave Canada almost right away.
On March 26, 1995, five weeks after the Igloolik charges were laid, he wrote Oblate officials in Belgium proposing a return. On April 20, 1995, he was invited to come back.
Some in the order knew Dejaeger was planning to leave, including his superior Jean-Paul Isabelle.
"He had finished his sentence," said Isabelle in 2011. "They gave him back his passport.
"I didn't agree with him leaving. I told him, 'Well, I don't want to know anything about this. But when you get to wherever you're going, here's a code that we're going to use to let me know where you are.'"
With Belgian and Canadian passports in hand, Dejaeger left. The Oblates were informed on June 20, 1995, that he had arrived in Belgium.
A few weeks later, an Oblate in Canada wrote Dejaeger telling him he was home free.
"It seems to me that they (Canada) will do nothing unless you come to Canada."
Vervust suggested Canada seemed glad to be rid of him.
"People from the police and his lawyer told him, 'Get out of here. As long as you don't come back to Canada there is not a problem.' And that's what he did," said Vervust in the documentary.
He made similar comments in a 2010 letter to fellow Oblates in which he said "people of the Canadian courts" told Dejaeger unofficially that he should leave the country and never return. The cases were old, said Vervust's Dutch-language letter.
Dejaeger "left Canada without any problem."
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."
Justice Canada has declined comment.
"As extradition requests are confidential communications, we can neither confirm, nor deny, the existence of an extradition request in this matter," said an official in response to a 2010 query about the Dejaeger case.
The Canadian Press could not reach Dejaeger's lawyer for comment.
An access to information request on Dejaeger was almost entirely redacted except for news reports.
Dejaeger's lawyer in 1995, John Scurfield, died in 2009.
Pierre Rousseau was Justice Canada's regional director for the Northwest Territories, which then included Nunavut, from 1992 to 1998. He said he wasn't involved with decisions around Dejaeger's 1995 trial, but added it wouldn't have been considered an unusual case.
"You wouldn't believe how it was at the time," he said in a recent interview. "We were dealing with hundreds of serious cases. It was very difficult."
In Baker Lake alone, there were two other major sexual assault trials. One involved an Anglican priest and another involved 17 men and the abuse of a mentally disabled girl.
"We were understaffed," said Rousseau. "When I remember those days, for every Crown, it was quite an ordeal."
Dejaeger's charges didn't stand out, Rousseau said. The number of counts against him didn't balloon until the late 1990s, when more alleged victims from Igloolik began coming forward. New charges were still being laid after his return to Canada.
In the end, it was an immigration violation, not an extradition order, that brought him back to face the charges he ran away from 18 years ago.
Dejaeger was eventually returned in January 2011 when a Belgian journalist realized that Dejaeger had lost his Belgian citizenship in 1977 when he became a naturalized Canadian. He had been living in Belgium since 1995 without a visa and was kicked out.