Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Elaine Montoya was a teenager when she thought she loved the parish priest, the now-convicted child molester Arthur Perrault.
It took years for her realize she was sexually abused, and to discover that her older brother also had been molested.
As young adults living in Denver, the brother and sister decided in 1984 to travel to Albuquerque to try to put a stop to Perrault’s access to kids. But first they had to tell their parents, including their mother, a devout Catholic and former nun.
“Unlike some of the other victims, our parents didn’t question our claim. Instead, they said if we told the archbishop, they never wanted to see us again. Needless to say, that hurt. We left our parents and the home we grew up in – and stayed at a hotel.”
The Montoya siblings, who got nowhere with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, were among the first of Perrault’s alleged victims to go public in October 1992 after they filed a civil lawsuit.
That same month, Perrault skipped town, putting himself a continent away from the mounting child sexual assault allegations against him by settling in north Africa. He taught at an American language school in Tangier, Morocco, where the FBI arrested him last September to face federal sexual assault charges in New Mexico.
Montoya, 59, was in the audience when a jury in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe convicted Perrault last week of the repeated sexual abuse of an altar boy who was befriended by the charismatic priest nearly 20 years after the Montoya siblings.
The unusual federal prosecution hinged on the testimony of a home-schooled boy named Ken Wolter who served daily Mass at St. Bernadette Parish in the early 1990s.
Wolter, now 38, testified that as a boy he was sad when Perrault, whom he considered his “best friend,” abruptly resigned from St. Bernadette to go on “sabbatical” in October 1992.
Like the Montoyas did earlier, Wolter went public in 2016 by filing a state civil lawsuit in his own name that detailed the repeated sexual molestation he endured from ages 10 to 11 years old at the hands of Perrault.
Details in the civil lawsuit, including Wolter’s young age at the time and the abuse occurring on federal property, caught the attention of the FBI. The lawsuit also gave Perrault’s whereabouts. Wolter’s attorney Brad Hall of Albuquerque traced Perrault to the school in Morocco.
Assisted by the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the FBI opened a criminal investigation in 2016 that culminated last week with the jury finding Perrault guilty of one count of abusive sexual contact and six counts of aggravated sexual abuse. He now faces a maximum life sentence in prison. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.
During the trial, Elaine Montoya attended daily to show support for Wolter and the seven other victims who provided corroborating evidence that Perrault had a propensity to sexually abuse boys.
With last Wednesday’s verdict, victims say, the federal government has now accomplished what the Catholic Church was never able to do: ensure that Perrault will no longer be free to abuse children.
“Last night was the first night since I was 14 years old that I could go to sleep knowing this man will never molest another child ever again,” Montoya told the Journal on Thursday morning. “Thanks to the 12 brave jurors, a precedent has been set in New Mexico. Sexual abuse by priests will not be tolerated.”
At least 38 civil claims of child sex abuse have been filed against Perrault in New Mexico. Montoya says that as far as she knows, she is the only female victim. Most all victims have been referred to as “John Doe” in lawsuits.
Defendants have included the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the Servants of the Paraclete, which operated a Jemez Springs center set up to treat pedophile Catholic priests – including Perrault – from around the country.
The archdiocese, which suspended Perrault’s priestly faculties in 1992, hasn’t responded to Journal inquiries about his case.
But court records show that when Perrault was about 28 years old, he was released from the Paraclete center and was reassigned to New Mexico in 1966 from his Hartford, Connecticut, diocese.
Over the next 26 years, he taught high school at St. Pius X and was priest at four different Albuquerque parishes. Perrault was also the coordinator of a workshop for Catholics in the western United States and was sometimes quoted in the Journal as an authoritative church official, once warning in a 1974 story about the “dangerous effect” the popular movie “The Exorcist” would have on children.
“The church has always taught that the devil is a fallen angel, the prince of darkness. We must respect the devil’s power, while respecting our own power to overcome the devil,” Perrault was quoted as saying.
Around that same time period, Elaine Montoya began working for Perrault on a Catholic publication he produced.
Initially, he presented himself as a friend, she told the Journal in a 1993 article. “But things changed. I was abused over 300 times in two years, and he made real certain it was kept secret.”
“When Perrault moved on to the sexual aspect, he would tell me our love was special and God meant this to be.”
“Given that my mother had been a nun seven years prior to marrying my dad, being raised as devout Catholics, I was taught that priests were the closest thing to God.”
A decade later she began having issues with a boyfriend and saw a therapist, mentioning that she had been in a relationship with a priest for several years.
That disclosure led to weeks of therapy. Finally, she said, “I decided to confide in my brother. Shockingly, he replied that he too has been abused by Perrault.”
In 1984, the two decided to return to Albuquerque, where she said they met with the then-archdiocese chancellor, the Rev. Donald Starkey.
“He said he had known Perrault had abused kids for over 25 years and there was nothing he could do about it. His hands were tied.” Starkey advised filing a police report, which she said they did. But that criminal investigation went nowhere.
Then-Archbishop of Santa Fe Robert Sanchez, in a 1996 deposition, told the Montoyas’ attorney, Bruce Pasternack, he didn’t know who they were and that Starkey never told him of their accusations.
The archdiocese settled her lawsuit in November 1993, with Montoya receiving about $300,000 after attorneys fees and costs, news reports showed. By that point, Montoya said, she had been admitted to a “psych” ward for several months of in-patient treatment.
“I lost my childhood, my innocence, my virginity,” she told the Journal back then. “… I lost my foundation, my trust of people and trust of God.”
Because she is now deaf, Montoya sat in the front row of the historic Santa Fe federal courtroom for Perrault’s criminal trial so she could easily see her sign language interpreters sitting across from her.
But that put her in close proximity to the defendant – the same man who used to complain that he had to go put on his “monkey suit” and say Mass, she said. The same priest who gave her pearls he said were his mother’s.
As court security officers escorted the now 81-year-old Perrault, relying on a walker, in and out of the courtroom, Montoya said she and Perrault eventually made eye contact.
“He gave me a huge smile. I just shook my head.”
No statute of limitations
Ken Wolter was 12 when the Montoyas went public with their allegations against Perrault.
“Back then I wanted to be a priest,” Wolter testified at trial, noting that Perrault’s “friendship” led to at least 100 acts of sexual contact, including anal and oral sex, that sometimes occurred on Kirtland Air Force Base and the Santa Fe National cemetery – locations Perrault could access because he was a priest and a military chaplain.
The fact that the crimes occurred on federal land allowed the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico to use its limited jurisdiction under federal law to prosecute. Unlike in New Mexico law, there is no federal criminal statute of limitations on such offenses.
On the witness stand, Wolter hung his head as he gave the details of his assaults and how he used to hide his blood-stained underwear in a closet at home where he did his own laundry.
His mother, a devout Catholic who volunteered at St. Bernadette, never questioned his trips with Perrault. She also wouldn’t permit him to “speak ill of priests,” he testified.
Like Montoya, Wolter underwent therapy years later and realized the damage Perrault had inflicted.
Wolter said he received about $300,000 from a $575,000 settlement of an initial lawsuit he filed against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 2015.
In 2017, after Wolter sued Perrault individually, he won a $16 million default judgment from state District Court Judge Denise Barela-Shepard after Perrault failed to respond in time to defend himself. Wolter has yet to collect.
“This lawsuit was never about money,” Wolter testified at the Santa Fe trial. “It was to give information about Father Perrault and others like Perrault. Other priests that were serial molesting and raping children. Just to get it into the court documents.”
Over the years, Montoya said she would routinely check the internet to find Perrault or his obituary. Now she can stop.
“For many of us, we take the first step in healing by making our abuse public,” she said. “Spurred by Perrault’s trial, we enter (another stage) where we clearly see we can’t let Perrault have power over the remainder of our lives. He’s already taken too many years. We have to make a conscious choice to heal.”