A Serial Offender

The scandal involving Douglas Perlitz and Project Pierre Toussaint in Haiti

The first sign that Douglas Perlitz, a once-celebrated Fairfield University graduate, was sexually abusing young boys enrolled in the Haitian school he directed emerged in August of 2007, when some of his victims began writing graffiti alleging the abuse on the walls of buildings throughout the city of Cap Haitien.

The abused boys began to confide in Cyrus Siebert, an investigative reporter in Haiti, who reported on the stories of horrific abuse by Perlitz. Connecticut’s Fairfield County Catholics were stunned to learn that the humanitarian project to which they had donated millions of dollars had become a haven for a serial sex abuser.

Until the graffiti appeared, Perlitz was viewed as a man who had devoted his life to helping to feed, clothe, and educate homeless Haitian boys through Project Pierre Toussaint, the humanitarian project that he founded in 1997. Even after the revelations of sexual abuse, disbelieving supporters continued to call him “the face of Christ in Haiti.”

Impressed by his apparent selfless goodness, Fairfield University had invited Perlitz to be the commencement speaker for the class of 2002 and awarded him an honorary degree with all the accolades that would accompany such an honor. In his speech to the graduates, Perlitz spoke proudly of the tremendous success stories emerging every day from his school. For example, he described a student by the name of Jackson as “exemplifying the transformational work at Project Pierre Toussaint.” Perlitz said that Jackson, an illiterate child who first came to him as a “dirty barefoot boy whose mother threw him onto the streets to beg,” learned to read and write at Project Pierre Toussaint, and “he learned responsibility by performing chores and completing his homework.” Eventually, Jackson scored first among all city students seeking admission to Cap- Hatien’s top private school. Perlitz concluded his commencement speech by saying that these kinds of successes are “what keep me going.”

These were heady days for Perlitz, who graduated from the Jesuits’ Fairfield University in 1992. He was a hero in Connecticut’s wealthy Fairfield County, and members of the community rewarded him generously for his work. The Order of Malta, a lay Catholic humanitarian order with a historic commitment to serving the poor and sick, provided the start-up money to create Perlitz’s program in 1997, and its members provided strong support to it for years, even after some of the accusations of sexual abuse surfaced.

But no organization had been more supportive of Perlitz’s Project Pierre Toussaint than Fairfield University itself. Newspaper reports reveal that more than $700,000 flowed through Fairfield University between 1997 and 2008 to benefit the charity. According to university officials, those funds consisted primarily of donations made by individuals at Sunday morning Mass at the on-campus Egan Chapel, as well as in donations to the university’s Office of Development earmarked for Project Pierre Toussaint.

In interviews published in campus newspapers and beyond, Fairfield University students recall that for years the walls of their on-campus chapel were filled with posted pictures and success stories from the Haiti project and Perlitz. Fairfield students were encouraged to offer prayers and donations to help one of their own bring hope to so many in Haiti.

In addition to the Church donations, $97,500 in undeclared payments came from restricted campus ministry accounts to Father Paul Carrier, SJ, who served for 18 years as the school’s campus ministry director. Father Carrier chaired the university’s Haiti Fund—a non-profit organization he created in 2001 to help raise money for Project Pierre Toussaint and other Haitian social service programs.

The Connecticut Post concluded that $775,500 might have gone to Project Pierre Toussaint between 1997-2008 from university accounts and from donations made through the university’s institutions. That total would amount to about 22 percent of the total funds that the Haiti Fund reportedly raised from 2001 to 2008. But, due to recordkeeping problems, there is some uncertainty about exactly how much money went to the project. In 2009, Stanley A. Twardy, a former federal prosecutor, supervised an internal audit of contributions raised by Fairfield University and concluded that how Father Carrier spent more than $120,500 of that money could not be determined.

Funding irregularities, however, were the least of the problems at Project Pierre Toussaint. In an investigative report, the Connecticut Post revealed that police records indicate that Perlitz sexually assaulted up to 29 students at his school. Former school employees told newspaper reporters that a culture of silence grew out of the fear of damaging the economically flourishing charity. A former friend of Perlitz’s who shared a Cap-Hatien apartment with him said that as far back as 1998 Perlitz was bringing young boys into his bedroom.

When the allegations became public, Perlitz and his supporters denied them. According to the Connecticut Post, some former board members claimed that Perlitz had been “railroaded” by greedy locals who wanted money. In a September 2008 fundraising letter to donors, Perlitz supporters, includingFather Paul Carrier and some individual members of the Order of Malta, asked for continued financial support for the Project.

Eventually, the police investigation produced evidence of child pornography and homosexual pornography on Perlitz’s personal computer. This convinced most of his supporters that Perlitz most likely had been involved in the illicit sexual activity.

But it was not until Perlitz pled guilty that his most ardent supporters finally ended their advocacy. A copy of the 30-page Haitian National Police investigative report was shared with reporters for the Connecticut Post and contained allegations of abuse beginning in 1997. Boys recounted horrific tales of sexual abuse, including several students who were physically injured by their encounters with Perlitz. One boy was admitted to a Haiti hospital for serious injuries he suffered after being sodomized by Perlitz.

According to news reports, Perlitz allegedly “groomed the children for sexual acts, serving them alcohol and watching homosexual pornography with them in his private apartment.” Using donations to the Project to lure the children for sex, Perlitz provided his victims with money, cell phones, electronic games and music players, shoes, and clothing.

With the evidence against him overwhelming and the options for defense waning, Perlitz finally acknowledged sexually abusing at least eight of his underage students. Before a judge at the US District Court in New Haven, Connecticut last August, Perlitz admitted his guilt by reading a three-paragraph statement which acknowledged that he had engaged in sex with one of the minor boys in Project Pierre Toussaint. In his statement he admitted, “One of the dominant purposes of the trip to Haiti was to engage in illicit sexual conduct with one of the boys.”

Although Perlitz formally admitted to only one count of “sexual tourism,” the Connecticut Post reported that he did not dispute the prosecutor’s claim that she had evidence showing that he had engaged in sex with at least eight underage boys and as many as 13.

At his sentencing hearing, Perlitz listened to the testimonies from six of the Haitian boys who claimed they were sexually abused by him. Telling their stories through a translator, the boys talked of being swayed by the clothes, food, and money Perlitz gave them in exchange for sexual favors. Many of the boys were only 11 years old when the abuse began and told the judge that they were afraid that they would be thrown back to the streets if they told others of the sexual abuse. Some of the six young Haitian men in the courtroom that day said that dozens of other boys were abused by Perlitz. The prosecutor concluded her case by claiming that Perlitz had sexually abused more than 30 boys.

In his defense, William Dow, one of Perlitz’s lawyers, asked the judge not to sentence Perlitz as the “monster” that prosecutors portrayed him as— “It is a tragedy on a whole bunch of levels,” Dow said. While the defense acknowledged that Perlitz had indeed abused several of the boys in his care, his attorneys maintained that he had also done much good for the Haitian people. In pre-trial sentencing pleas, Dow filed documents which indicated that one factor in Perlitz’s crimes was his “dark and abusive relationship” with a priest he met while attending Fairfield University.

Judge Janet Bond Arterton, the presiding judge in the case, said she believed that there were at least 16 victims, based on video-recorded testimony from others who attended the Project Pierre Toussaint school. Arterton called Douglas Perlitz a “serial rapist and molester” as she imposed the maximum sentence possible—20 years in prison. And, although it might seem that this is the end of this story, the reality is that there may be much more to come, as Fairfield University finds itself having to explain the “dark and abusive relationship” Perlitz claims to have had with a Jesuit priest there.

Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to be sentenced for illicit sexual conduct in Haiti, the Connecticut Post reported that his defense filed a memorandum stating that Perlitz was a victim in the charges against him, alluding to a priest who began a long-term “physical and spiritual” relationship with Perlitz soon after his first days as an undergraduate at Fairfield University. The document also claimed that this same priest played a key role in all of Perlitz’s work in Haiti.

According to the Fairfield Mirror, the defense stated that this unnamed priest accompanied Perlitz on his first trip to Haiti as part of a campus ministry group trip and remained an authority figure in Project Pierre Toussaint. The defense document also stated that the relationship with the priest “ultimately took on a dark aspect, both physically and spiritually, that had a significant and long-lasting impact on him…eventually leading him to cross the line and engage in sexual misconduct.”

Claiming that the relationship between the priest and Perlitz was a significant factor in his sexual abuse of young boys in Haiti, the defense attorney concluded that “it is a sad and all-too-true fact that abusive behavior has a painful circularity to it.” In the defense filing, Perlitz claims to have become involved in this relationship with the priest shortly after arriving on campus as a freshman, when he was “struggling with his sexual identity.” According to the defense, Perlitz was struggling with same-sex attraction and confided in a Fairfield University priest, who exploited him emotionally and sexually: “In many ways the abuse of power and trust that manifested itself in Doug’s own painful relationship with the priest recurred in his own conduct with some of the young adults of Project Pierre Toussaint.”

The claims of the defense plea have not been established. Still, the Jesuit order has suspended Father Carrier as it investigates his relationships with students while serving at Fairfield University. Father Carrier spent more than 20 years at Fairfield University, first as an instructor and later as chaplain and director of campus ministry.

The Connecticut Post reported that “[Carrier] was transferred from the school in 2008 at the same time federal investigators began digging into allegations of sexual abuse at the Haitian school operated by Douglas Perlitz.”

 


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About Anne Hendershott 95 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).