IQALUIT, Nunavut - A courtroom swelled with weeping, cries and 35 years of bottled-up grief Thursday as a defrocked priest who abused dozens of Inuit children told a judge about to sentence him that he's sorry for his crimes and won't commit any more.
"I can only take responsibility for what I have done," said Eric Dejaeger, 67, convicted on 32 counts of child sex abuse from his days as an Oblate missionary in Igloolik, Nunavut, between 1978 and 1982.
Speaking quietly, in a voice heavily accented by his native Flemish, Dejaeger faced Justice Robert Kilpatrick in an Iqaluit courtroom and spoke for less than a minute.
"I would like to ask for forgiveness," he said. "I promise not to reoffend — and that's not just words."
That cued a crescendo of sorrow and tears from about 30 victims and supporters who had gathered to see their one-time tormentor for what they hoped was the last time. After court adjourned, one victim and his wife embraced in the middle of the room, motionless, she holding him up as everyone filed out around them.
It was the end of a story that began for some victims when they were as young as four and which played out across three decades and two continents. It raised questions about the role of the Catholic church and Canadian officials in delaying justice for those still suffering mental scars from horrific attacks.
The victims include 12 boys and 10 girls, most between the ages of eight and 12. Dejaeger also abused a dog in front of two children.
Many testified that Dejaeger used his position 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 as a lure.
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 in 1995, after he had served that sentence, that he learned RCMP were about to charge him for his activities in Igloolik. He fled to his native Belgium, testifying in court that Canadian justice officials suggested it would be easiest if he simply left Canada, where he had become a citizen.
Oblate officials have acknowledged that they knew Dejaeger was about to flee. For 16 years, he lived quietly in homes maintained by the order despite an international warrant for his arrest.
Eventually, journalists revealed that Dejaeger was living illegally in Belgium. He was returned in 2011.
The Crown has asked for a 25-year sentence, which would be reduced to 17 years once credit for time already served is subtracted.
Dejaeger's lawyer says 12 years, of which no more than four would be spent behind bars, would be more in keeping with previous judgments. The defence says Dejaeger is being treated for cancer, has heart problems and fears dying in prison.
Kilpatrick is expected to release a written decision by mid-February.
Dejaeger is also expected to appear in court in Edmonton on Friday on another four sex-related counts.