The woman who took on the church, and won
Dejaeger saga part of Roman Catholic scandal that spans the globe
When Father Eric Dejaeger, minus belt and shoes, shuffled handcuffed into the Iqaluit courthouse this past Jan. 20, he had Lieve Halsberghe of Louvain, Belgium to thank for his long-postponed appointment with Canadian justice.
Halsberghe volunteers for the Belgian wing of a U.S.-based global organization called SNAP — the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
After years of internet-based work on behalf of Nunavut sexual abuse victims, Halsberghe, thanks to an Ottawa-Iqaluit ticket donated by First Air, was able last week to visit the territory whose sexual abuse victims she knew only as names on fading police files.
“I would like to tell the people of the church in Nunavut that times are changing, we live in the 21st century and that all men and women are created equal on this planet,” Halsberghe said in an interview in Iqaluit last week.
“There are no exceptions for anybody who has some kind of religious title. We do not accept this any longer.”
Her involvement with the notorious case of Eric Dejaeger dates back to 2000, when her aunt, retired magistrate Godelieve Halsberghe, headed an internal commission of inquiry in Belgium earlier this decade into the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.
The elder Halsberghe woman discovered that Dejaeger, still wanted in Canada on six outstanding sex charges involving children from Igloolik, then hid in plain sight within the bosom of the Belgian church.
“There was no demand for extradition from Canada. And even if there had been it would have been complicated. Belgium has a statute of limitations. According to Belgian law these crimes are too old to be prosecuted. It’s ridiculous,” Halsberghe said.
On Feb. 19, 1995, Cpl. Tom Power, then an RCMP member stationed in Igloolik, laid the six counts following a lengthy investigation related to incidents alleged to have occured between 1978 and 1982.
But Dejaeger never made it to his first scheduled court appearance on those charges, set for June 13, 1995.
By then, the disgraced priest had finished serving out a five-year prison sentence that Justice Ted Richard imposed in 1990, following Dejaeger’s conviction on nine sex charges from the late 1980s involving children in Baker Lake.
No one then knew that Dejaeger, now 65 and a Canadian citizen, had renounced his Belgian citizenship.
He remained in Europe, where the Belgian Oblates took him in and gave him a variety of assignments, some of which put him into contact with children and young people.
This included a stint at the famous shrine at Lourdes in southern France, where Dejaeger acted as guide and translator for Flemish language school groups.
Halsberghe said that for 15 years, governing officials at the Oblate order ignored the serious allegations that Dejaeger faced in Canada and did nothing to acknowledge the truth.
“They have been lying to these people for 15 years. They knew where Dejaeger was because they had his address in their book,” Halsberghe said.
After 2000, Halsberghe said Belgian church officials blocked all attempts to have Dejaeger brought to justice, despite at least two bench warrants issued by the Nunavut court and an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol.
This activist work included a meeting last year with Dejaeger’s provincial superior in the Belgian Oblates, where she urged him to order Dejaeger to get on a plane and fly to Canada.
“I tried to, for a couple of hours, to get through to his conscience, but at the end of the meeting I had to go home with the idea that this man has no conscience.
“He just didn’t see any reason why this man should be sent back to Canada, even with all the evidence that we had. It would have been so easy to have said to this guy, it’s over now, go back to Canada.”
At the same time, the Belgian church last year was engulfed in a series of scandals related to the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, mirroring similar scandals that have erupted in Ireland, Austria, Germany and Italy.
The Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned his position in June 2010 after he admitted to having sexually abused his nephew, and police conducted raids on Roman Catholic offices to search for evidence related to the sexual abuse of minors.
In September 2010, the internal church commission first headed by Halsberghe’s aunt, now headed by a prominent psychiatrist, issued a report that contained shocking testimony given by hundreds of people who had been victimized by church pedophiles.
“There are no exceptions for anybody who has some kind of religious title. We do not accept this any longer,” Halsberghe said.
Then, a Belgian journalist unearthed a long-buried fact: Eric Dejaeger was not a Belgian citizen.
On Sept. 15, 2010, an embarrassed Belgian government issued a statement saying Dejaeger lost his Belgian citizenship some time after he became a Canadian citizen in 1977.
This meant an extradition request from Canada was no longer necessary.
So having discovered that Dejaeger lived in their country illegally, Belgian authorities arrested him, then began a judicial process to have him expelled and flown to Canada.
After his arrival in Iqaluit this past January, many Igloolik residents broke their silence. Over the past six months, the Crown has laid about two dozen additional charges against Dejaeger, bringing the total to about 30. One of those new counts alleges an act of bestiality.
Though Halsberghe is pleased that Dejaeger has been brought to court, she’s still worried about the fate of the complainants.
“You have the prosecutor and the defence. Where do the victims get a lawyer?” Halsberghe said.
And she still has no confidence in the ability of the Roman Catholic church to admit the wrongs committed by its priests and bishops. She accuses the church of setting its internal canon law above the universal laws of the state.
“Their law, their private hobby-club law, they think of it as superior, but it’s far inferior to the law of men,” she said.
“Before reconciliation, you must have the truth. Without that, you can have no reconciliation,” she said.
Dejaeger is scheduled to appear at a preliminary inquiry in Iqaluit that is set for February 2012.