Belgian victims’ advocate in Nunavut court to complete her work on Eric Dejaeger
“Since 2010, I’ve come to meet many in terms of sexual abuse”
Father Eric Dejaeger might not be sitting in an Iqaluit courtroom this week if it hadn’t been for the work of Godelieve Halsberghe.
She’s the person who discovered Dejaeger had been living and working in Belgium for 15 years in spite of outstanding arrest warrants against him issued in Nunavut and by Interpol.
This ultimately led to the priest’s return to Canada to face numerous sex charges, most of them flowing from his stay in Igloolik in the later 1970s and early 1980s.
That was in 2010. Now her niece, Lieve Halsberghe, is visiting Iqaluit to see her aunt’s work completed.
“She gave me this file and I took it on and I have to finish,” Halsberghe said in an interview with Nunatsiaq News.
She’s travelled more than 7,500 kilometres to get from Beligum to Iqaluit to attend Dejaeger’s trial, which began Nov. 18.
But on top of her aunt’s work, Halsberghe hopes this case will have a ripple effect in Belgium.
Belgium currently has a statute of limitations that often prevents child victims of sexual assault from pressing charges after they have reached adulthood.
If someone is sexually abused as a child, they have 15 years after the age of 18 to press charges — something Halsberghe calls “ridiculous.”
“The Belgian police could not arrest Dejaeger in 2010 because there were no offenses that he had committed that were punishable by law,” she said.
And the law needs to change, Halsberghe said.
“It should change things in Belgium. Because people should realize that it’s necessary,” she said.
“I think it’s cruel that you make laws, and these laws are not correct when it comes to these kind of crimes. The laws should be changed and that’s the opinion of all victims of sexual abuse.”
The Canadian system is a better model to follow, she said.
“It’s an example of how it is possible to pursue cases like [Dejaeger] — how good a job the prosecutors and the police have done here.”
This is the second time Halsberghe has visited Nunavut to observe Dejaeger in court.
She previously volunteered for an organization called the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
But Halsberghe came to Iqaluit “pro bono” to research Dejaeger’s case.
“It’s kind of a job I have to finish. Before I can have an output I have to understand it, so that’s why I’m doing research,” she said.
Halsberghe now works for an organization called Bishop Accountability, a Boston-based website that tracks priests who have sexually abused children.
“It’s an immense database of documents that is extremely valuable,” Halsberghe said.
“I built data maps of priests in Belgian through published documents. We won’t accuse, we just document what is there. We take what is already published and we transform it into a database,” she said
“We do good things like assignment histories of priests in directories of churches. I’ve done that with the Oblates here too.”
Halsberghe is looking at the idea of taking her research and turning it into a book.
“My heritage from my aunt — I have to finish the business. I want to write a book about this and I want people to know the other side of the story,” Halsberghe said.
And that other side of the story involves exposing cover-ups by the Roman Catholic church and highlighting the trauma that sexual assault victims experience after an attack.
“Since 2010, I’ve come to meet many in terms of sexual abuse. And it’s devastating to a person’s life,” she said.
Halsberghe, who sat in court to see the trial’s first day Nov. 18, said there’s more than just the sex crime that ruins lives.
“Today we listened to the physical pain. What they didn’t talk about is the pain that’s much worse than the physical pain — the humiliation,” Halsberghe said.
“Dejaeger did humiliate his victims pretty badly. But the fear of not being believed and being turned down and being called a liar is so much more painful. And it goes on for so many years.”