POLITICS

Priest abuse sentencing creates mental-health worries in Arctic hamlet

01/18/2015 10:00 EST | Updated 03/20/2015 05:59 EDT
IQALUIT, Nunavut - Extra mental-health workers have been flown to a remote Arctic hamlet as a defrocked priest who sexually abused many of its children is expected to face a sentencing hearing Monday.

"Mental-health support and counselling support are available for the people involved with this hearing," said William Qamukaq, a community justice worker in Igloolik, Nunavut.

Eric Dejaeger, a 67-year-old former Oblate priest, will face the opening day of a sentencing hearing on 32 counts of child sexual abuse between 1978 and 1982 when he lived in Igloolik on the northern tip of the Melville Peninsula in central Nunavut.

His crimes, which range from indecent assault to bestiality, were so vile that the written judgment from the Nunavut Court of Justice began with a warning about disturbing content.

Dejaeger's arrest and trial roiled dark and damaging memories in the community.

"There is a large number of victims, which makes it necessary," Qamukaq said. "One or two people won't be enough throughout the hearing, so resources have been made available."

In addition to Qamukaq, a full-time psychiatric nurse and mental-health social worker are to be in Igloolik. An additional psychiatric nurse is to be present during video conferencing with the hearing, which is being held in Iqaluit.

A meeting is to be held in Igloolik prior to the video conferencing to prepare the victims, and a mental-health worker is to travel to Iqaluit with those who will deliver impact statements in person.

Community healers from Clyde River, Nunavut, will also be at the courthouse in Iqaluit.

"The mental-health team has been working closely with the hamlet, community and the RCMP to address concerns surrounding this case as they arise," said Ron Wassink of the Nunavut Health Department.

Dejaeger's case 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.

During the trial, witness after witness left court only to be heard outside, howling and weeping in anguish.

Although Dejaeger originally faced 80 charges, Justice Robert Kilpatrick found that many memories had grown uncertain over the years. The prosecution was also weakened by defence suggestions that many of the witnesses had conferred before the trial to hone their testimony.

In the end, Dejaeger was convicted on 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 and 10 girls. Dejaeger also abused a dog 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.

Some were fondled on Dejaeger's lap as their friends played around them. One was assaulted as she helped Dejaeger look for Christmas ornaments.

One 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.

Many 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 he dangled food in front of hungry children to lure them.

Monday's sentencing won't be Dejaeger's last court appearance.

He is to appear in Edmonton on Friday on four other sex-related charges.

Dejaeger has already served one five-year sentence on 11 counts of assaulting 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 about to charge him for his activities in Igloolik. Before his court date arrived, he fled to his native Belgium.

Oblate officials have acknowledged that they knew Dejaeger was about to depart. 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 despite an international warrant for his arrest. Eventually, journalists revealed that Dejaeger was living illegally in Belgium. He was returned to Canada in 2011.

Qamukaq said he hopes the sentencing will grant some of the victims a measure of peace.

"They are relieved, in some way," he said. "It is a closure for some of them."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton