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Priest to face up to 9 of his accusers in court

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

More than 26 years have elapsed since the Rev. Arthur Perrault vanished from New Mexico, leaving behind police, prosecutors and nearly 40 children he allegedly molested and who have had to bear in secret their shame and sorrow.

Arthur Perrault

But, beginning next week, the 81-year-old Perrault is set to stand trial in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe where he is expected to publicly face up to nine of his alleged victims.

In what has been described as an important and highly unusual case, the former prominent Albuquerque priest is facing seven counts of sexual misconduct, and if convicted, could spend the rest of his life in prison.

U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez said at a recent pretrial hearing that she had reviewed discovery in the case investigated by the FBI and noted that the alleged victims’ sworn accounts of events decades ago “are incredibly specific.”

“Not only were they specific about the sex acts they alleged were perpetrated … but the descriptions of their lives as children, as students and some as altar boys. There are very graphic descriptions of what they have gone through since they met Mr. Perrault and how it affected their jobs and their marriages.”

In the years since Perrault fled, over 400 confidential civil claims against current or former Catholic priests have been filed in New Mexico. The tens of millions of dollars paid in financial settlements to victims prompted two of New Mexico’s three Catholic dioceses to file for bankruptcy reorganization, with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s case ongoing.

Although nearly 80 priests in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe alone have been credibly accused of child sexual assault, few have been criminally prosecuted in New Mexico. Over the years, district attorneys have concluded that there was insufficient evidence or that too much time had elapsed to bring charges. (Since Perrault’s arrest last September, the state Attorney General’s Office has filed state criminal charges against two former Archdiocese of Santa Fe priests.)

Return from Morocco

The extent of clergy sexual abuse – and cover-up by church hierarchy – in the United States and the world had not yet come to light when Perrault boarded a plane in Albuquerque in 1992 and left the country. He resettled in Tangier, Morocco, where he didn’t have to fear extradition, and found a job teaching boys at an American school.

But against the odds, Perrault ended up back in New Mexico last year after his expulsion by Morocco, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. His arrest by the FBI on a sealed grand jury indictment issued in 2017 involved a sole victim, identified only as John Doe #1.

Jury selection in the case is set to begin in Albuquerque on Monday. The trial in Santa Fe is expected to last two weeks.

“This is a very unique case, your honor,” Perrault’s court-appointed attorney Samuel Winder said at a pretrial hearing March 21. Winder said he knew of no other similar prosecution of a priest “in federal district court in this country.”

Perrault has pleaded not guilty to the six counts of aggravated sexual abuse and one count of abusive sexual contact. He rejected a plea deal from prosecutors in October and has been held in federal custody awaiting trial.

Federal prosecutors allege that the former priest, teacher and pastor of St. Bernadette parish and several others in Albuquerque had a propensity for first grooming, then abusing, young boys, engaging in sexual acts with minors under age 12, some between 12 and 16, dating back to the early 1960s.

The alleged victims expected to testify about events decades ago are not children anymore. All are grown men, some headed for retirement.

Two of them met Perrault when he taught at St. Pius High School in the 1960s, after his release from a Jemez Springs treatment center for troubled priests.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Holland Kastrin told the judge at the recent hearing that Perrault has “dozens” of victims. Albuquerque attorney Brad D. Hall, whose office has filed more than 120 civil claims alleging clergy abuse, has estimated the number involving Perrault to be 38.

“It (the trial) is a huge deal for survivors,” Hall said Saturday, “not only for the many victims of Fr. Perrault, but the many hundreds of New Mexican victims of priest sexual abuse over the past 50 years. A federal prosecution is a big step in the right direction toward statewide healing.”

Remarkable case

Perrault’s prosecution is remarkable for New Mexico because of the time that has elapsed since the alleged abuse, and because federal, not state, authorities brought criminal charges. Prosecutors were also able to find an alleged victim whose sexual abuse occurred in 1991 and 1992 – a period within the applicable federal criminal statute of limitations.

And there was another critical factor.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office can prosecute under federal law – with fewer legal impediments – because John Doe #1 alleged he was repeatedly sexually abused on federal property – namely, the Kirtland Air Force Base chapel, where Perrault sometimes worked, and the Santa Fe National Cemetery, where Perrault presided over funerals.

Although the victim named in the federal indictment was an 11-year-old altar boy at the time of the alleged crimes, Vázquez agreed in a March 25 opinion that the testimony of eight other alleged Perrault victims could be presented at trial.

That’s because Congress foresaw the difficulties in prosecuting sex crimes involving child victims and enacted court rules in the 1990s that permit a jury to hear similar accounts by other victims. That decreases the likelihood that such cases “will be an unresolved swearing match” between the alleged victim and the accused, Vázquez stated in her ruling.

“The Court finds it highly probative of John Doe #1’s credibility that there are eight additional victims who were in the same age range (all pre-pubescent or in puberty), same gender, and all knew Mr. Perrault by association of him being a priest. … Thus Mr. Perrault held some position of authority over them,” her ruling stated.

During the pretrial hearing, Perrault’s attorney argued that no physical evidence ties Perrault to any of the crimes and that the allegations are “old and unreliable.”

But Vázquez stated in her ruling that Perrault is alleged to have “over time … used his position of authority over the victims to silence them and exploit his position of power as a priest or teacher. Additionally, the reason these claims are only now being charged is because Mr. Perrault fled the jurisdiction for decades after victims started coming forward.”

Perrault abruptly left St. Bernadette’s as several alleged victims filed reports with Albuquerque police and the news media began asking questions.

A state grand jury looking into sex abuse allegations against Perrault never brought an indictment, according to a Journal story in 1996.

At the court hearing earlier this month, Winder argued against permitting additional victims to testify.

“When a jury gets this case, hearing the rest of the victims, the jury will convict my client,” he told the judge. “Given the allegations against Catholic priests throughout the U.S., he’ll be convicted.”

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