Widespread Sexual Abuse of Children in Remote Northern Community Results in Another Priest Being Found Guilty of Sex-Related Offences
The press reported late last week that former Roman Catholic priest and Oblate missionary Eric Dejaeger has been convicted on 24 of 80 sex-related charges involving Inuit children from the remote community of Igloolik in the Territory of Nunavut. The sexual abuse Dejaeger was charged with reportedly took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The majority of those who say they were abused by Dejaeger were, at the time, boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 12. Although Dejaeger pled guilty to some of the charges against him, he also contested some of the charges, thereby forcing many who alleged they had been abused by him to testify at a criminal trial.
Dejaeger had been previously convicted of similar sex-related criminal charges involving children in another remote northern community, where he was posted after he served in Igloolik. Media reports indicate that after serving his sentence for his previous convictions, Dejaeger fled to Belgium before eventually being located and brought back to Canada to face more criminal charges.
This sad story of clergy sexual abuse of vulnerable children in remote communities inhabited by Canada’s Aboriginal and Inuit peoples is, unfortunately, not the first of its kind. There are many other examples. One such example is Ralph Rowe, a former Anglican priest and Boy Scout leader, who traveled to fly-in reserve communities in northwestern Ontario using an official Anglican Church of Canada-issued float plane. He too committed widespread sexual assaults on Aboriginal male youth in the 1970s and 1980s. This resulted in wave after wave of criminal charges, convictions based on guilty pleas and trials, as well as civil lawsuits for compensation against the organizations that placed Ralph Rowe in positions of power, authority and trust, and yet failed to detect or stop his rampant pedophilia.
What we can expect to see now in Nunavut are civil claims for compensation by the victims of former Oblate missionary Dejaeger, and not just those victims in relation to whom Dejaeger has been criminally convicted. While a conviction on the criminal standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is determinative of wrongdoing in a civil lawsuit, where the standard of proof is the lower one of proof “on a balance of probabilities”, an acquittal on criminal charges is irrelevant in a civil lawsuit. This is because the acquittal only means there was a reasonable doubt which did not allow for a conviction and not that the accused person is innocent of any wrongdoing.
With well-established precedents of high authority in which Canadian courts have found religious organizations vicariously liable for the sexual misconduct of their clergy, the victims of Dejaeger are likely to have viable civil claims for compensation against the Oblates who assigned Dejaeger to do their missionary work in Inuit communities in Nunavut. Compensation may help some victims and their families, and even assist their communities, all of whom have no doubt suffered tremendous harm and losses as a result of Dejaeger’s extensive sexual misconduct.
Elizabeth Grace is a civil sexual abuse lawyer in Toronto and has specialized in sexual assault matters for nearly two decades.