WARNING: This article discusses sexual abuse.
The statutory release of a defrocked priest who sexually abused children in Igloolik, Nunavut, received a sharp response from the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations.
On Thursday, Minister Marc Miller told reporters he believes people like Eric Dejaeger “should rot in jail.”
Dejaeger, now 75, was convicted in 2015 of 32 counts of sexually abusing people in Igloolik, many of them children.
He was granted release in mid-May to serve the rest of his sentence in the community under several conditions. Statutory release is offered to most prisoners after they have completed two-thirds of their time, but the Parole Board of Canada can deny release if it believes the offender is likely to commit crimes including sexual abuse of children.
“In a democracy such as ours, it’s actually a good thing that people like me don’t decide over people’s life and death,” Miller said, adding he doesn’t think Dejaeger spent enough time in prison for his crimes.
“You have to trust in the system that is one of the best in the world, but hearing these things is deeply troubling and my heart goes out to the survivors and those this person hurt.”
In Dejaeger’s case, the parole board said he continues to deny responsibility for many of his crimes and, despite taking programs while in prison, has “made limited measurable and observable gains in addressing [his] risk.”
If he was able to live where he wanted — with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic missionary group — instead of in a halfway house, the board concluded he would present an “undue risk” of reoffending.
Documents from the parole board redact the location of the halfway house he will live at, which he must return to every night.
Justice Minister David Lametti said he echoes Miller’s comments and hopes the harms Dejaeger inflicted were taken into consideration for his release.
‘Ongoing emotional and psychological harm’
The Parole Board of Canada’s decision acknowledges Dejaeger was “in a position of great trust” over his victims, which he used to groom and silence them.
“You also used physical violence and caused serious physical injuries to some of the victims. The victims suffered devastating and ongoing emotional and psychological harm,” the board wrote.
Dejaeger, who was born in Belgium, became a Canadian citizen in 1977 and went to Nunavut as an Oblate priest.
Before his trial for the Igloolik crimes, Dejaeger had served part of a five-year sentence for sex charges stemming from a posting in Baker Lake between 1982 and 1989.
After his release in 1991, Dejaeger learned RCMP were investigating his activities in Igloolik. Before facing trial on those charges, he fled to Belgium.
He was expelled from Belgium in 2011 over immigration violations and sent back to Canada.
In 2015, Dejaeger was sentenced to 19 years in prison for crimes he committed between 1978 and 1982. Because of the time he spent in custody before his trial, he had 11 years left to serve after he was convicted.
The 32 crimes he was sentenced for ranged from indecent assault to sexual assault and bestiality. Most of his victims were between the ages of eight and 12.
The details were so appalling the judge’s sentencing came with a content warning.
Later in 2015, he was also convicted of sexually abusing children in Alberta.
After Dejaeger’s release, Father Ken Thorson with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate told CBC the Oblates condemn Dejaeger’s “horrific” acts.
He apologized to Dejaeger’s victims and their families.
“Clergy sexual abuse is a tragedy, and we are deeply sorry to any survivors who have been harmed by Eric or any other Oblate or Catholic priests,” he wrote.
After Dejaeger stays in a halfway house, he might move to an Oblate community where the Oblates would closely supervise him and restrict him from being in contact with any minors.
Any such plan would require approval from the Parole Board of Canada, Thorson said.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to keep vulnerable persons in the community safe from convicted Oblates,” he said.
Thorson said they have been in touch with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) regarding Dejaeger’s release.
In an email, ITK said it “continues to advocate for the full force of the justice system to be brought against those who commit crimes against the most vulnerable in our society,” including priests who have evaded justice.
“There is no measure of justice that can erase the pain their actions have caused,” the statement reads. “The system is imperfect, and we continue to work to advance measures to improve the ways Inuit interact with the federal justice system.”