Many of us remember that, around 1997, Douglas Perlitz obtained funding to found Project Pierre Toussaint (PPT), a school for boys in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. Initially, PPT began as an intake center referred to as the 13th Street Intake Program and provided services to children of all ages, most of whom were street children.
The services provided for the children included meals, sports activities, basic classroom instruction, and access to running water for baths. PPT continued to expand and, in approximately 1999, a residential facility, Village Pierre Toussaint (referred to as the “Village”), was added. Although the Village was staffed primarily by Haitians, Perlitz was directly involved with the Village. Circa 1999, The Haiti Fund Inc. was incorporated as a charitable, religious and educational organization in Connecticut, and operated as the fund-raising arm of PPT. The fund raised large sums of money through fund-raising efforts in Connecticut, and all of the expenses associated with PPT were paid for by monies raised on behalf of PPT by the Haiti Fund.
At various times between 2001 and 2008, Perlitz traveled from airports in the U.S. to Haiti to engage in illicit sexual conduct with minors and did, in fact, engage in sexual conduct with minor boys who attended school at PPT. He abused his position of authority to entice and persuade the minors to comply with the sex acts by providing the promise of food and shelter and other benefits, including cash, cell phones, electronics, shoes, clothes, and other items. Perlitz ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 19-plus years imprisonment. We suspect that the sentence was a reflection of the fact that the government was dealing with a foreign government, impoverished young men now on the streets, poor record keeping, etc.
Several lawsuits were thereafter filed, asserting that Fairfield University, the Society of Jesus of New England, which operates the university, the charity’s board, and individuals associated with both the school and the charity were able to influence Perlitz but failed to stop abuse that was known to residential staff in Haiti. The lawsuits contended that Perlitz’s charitable operation in Haiti drew significant support, financial and otherwise, from Fairfield University and the larger religious community associated with the Jesuit school. The financial support in particular gave donors access to and control over Perlitz’s operation, according to Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for the victims. During the period in which the abuse took place, the suits assert, the university contributed $57,000 to the charity and the Jesuits contributed $600,000.
At the same time, the Jesuits assigned priests in training to work at Project Pierre Toussaint, and the university arranged for volunteers to work there. According to the lawsuits, the frequent travel to and from Haiti should have alerted church and school officials to the abuse. Additionally, it was widely known on the campus of the residential school in Haiti that Perlitz was spending nights with boys and that, in some cases, boys complained to the charity’s staff, and their cries of pain could be heard at night from Perlitz’s bedroom. The lawsuits recently settled for $12 million and new suits by other boys are being threatened.
While Perlitz was prosecuted criminally, and others pursued civilly, the persons associated with the nonprofit corporation could not be charged criminally because they are not mandated reporters under Connecticut law. Were they, their failure to report could have subjected them to criminal prosecution. Sadly, this was not an isolated case and there are now attorneys and agents in the United States Attorney’s Office who specialize in these cases-cases involving criminal acts perpetrated by persons connected to and funded by Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)whose employees volunteers abuse children.
This year’s legislative session gives us an opportunity to remedy the situation. We should require any director, officer, or employee of a nonprofit corporation that is incorporated in or operates in Connecticut, as well as any director, officer, or employee of a religious corporation or religious society that is formed in or that operates in Connecticut, who has reasonable cause to believe that a child under the age of 18 has suffered abuse or neglect caused by a person acting on behalf of the corporation or society, to provide an oral report to the Commissioner of Children and Families or a law enforcement agency, provided that the alleged perpetrator of such abuse or neglect is employed by, contracted by, or volunteers with the organization and coaches, trains, educates, or counsels a child or children or regularly has unsupervised access to a child.
Maybe if people understood that their failure to behave morally would subject them to liability criminally, they would do the right thing. It shouldn’t matter that the abuse took place outside our state or that the school operated outside Connecticut. The foundation of the Haitian school-the entity that allowed it to operate, was within our borders, and the decision to fund the school was made by persons acting while part of an entity housed in our borders. Sadly, so did the feigned ignorance of the abuse. •