Dejaeger set up sleeping bags for “camping” sessions in church bedroom
“There was a kind of atmosphere of trust”
The Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit heard a fresh voice at the trial of Eric Dejaeger Nov. 29, who said the former priest set up “camping” sessions with sleeping bags for children in an upstairs church bedroom.
Nicole Arnatsiaq was a religion teacher at the school in Igloolik in 1981 and 1982 and lived at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church when Dejaeger was a priest there.
Arnatsiaq told Justice Robert Kilpatrick that Dejaeger used to wear “tight jeans,” but said, “at the time I did not [see] any abnormalities.”
However, she did see sleeping bags upstairs in a bedroom once when Father Robert Lechat, head priest of the church, was away on one of many regular trips to neighbouring missions.
“Eric told me they were camping here,” Arnatsiaq told Crown prosecutor Doug Curliss.
Dejaeger, 66, faces 77 sex-related charges. Of those, he pleaded guilty to eight charges of indecent assault on day one of the trial.
Those charges stem from incidents that are alleged to have occurred in Igloolik during his tenure as a priest there between 1978 and 1982. Most of the witnesses so far have been complainants — there are 39 in total.
In response to questions about the sleeping bags from defence lawyer Malcolm Kempt, Arnatsiaq said she didn’t suspect sexual abuse because Dejaeger described it as “camping.”
“There was a kind of atmosphere of trust,” Arnatsiaq told Kempt.
Arnatsiaq testified that she never actually saw any children sleeping there.
The church was a different place when Lechat left the community, Arnatsiaq said. It was more “free” and “open” when it was just her and Dejaeger living inside the church.
She said Lechat had a “9 p.m. rule” — that’s when all the kids in the church, who used to run around playing, had to leave.
That was not the case when Lechat was absent.
“Eric didn’t kick children out,” Arnatsiaq told Kempt.
The woman said she only clued into what might have been happening later, when she lived in Iqaluit, and heard about sex charges against Dejaeger stemming from his service as a priest in Baker Lake, where he lived after Igloolik.
The Belgian-born Oblate missionary has already served a five-year prison sentence imposed in 1990 after he was found guilty of sex crimes that occurred in Baker Lake between 1982 and 1989.
“When I heard that, many pieces of the puzzle came in,” she said.
After becoming emotional with the news, Arnatsiaq called Father Lechat to confirm.
“Of course he said yes, he knew,” Arnatsiaq said.
Lechat is expected to appear as a witness some time during this trial.
After their experience with Dejaeger, there was a “feeling of mistrust” among Igloolik residents towards priests, she said.
Arnatsiaq has lived in Igloolik for the better part of two decades now. She said people felt suspicious toward priests after the Dejaeger scandal broke, but they still go to church.
She said that mistrust led to the departure of then-Igloolik priest Tony Krotki in 2011.
Krotki is now Nunavut’s Roman Catholic bishop.
At the end of the Crown and defence’s cross-examinations, Arnatsiaq interrupted proceedings and made the unusual request of speaking directly to Justice Kilpatrick. He allowed her to do so.
She told the court she finds the proceedings “really regrettable.”
“The Catholic Church was the centre of the community, but now, not,” Arnatsiaq said.
“I just wish what took place never happened. I just feel a bit sad that it has happened.”
This is the end of week two in what prosecutors predict will be a six-week trial.