SANTA FE, N.M. — A jury has found a former Roman Catholic priest and retired Air Force chaplain, who was extradited from Morocco last September, guilty of sexually abusing an altar boy at an Air Force base and a veterans’ cemetery in New Mexico in the early 1990s.
The jury reached the verdict Wednesday against 81-year-old Arthur Perrault, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel, following a trial in Santa Fe in which several men testified that they had been abused by him as children in his car, a church rectory and other locations.
The victim at the center of the case said Perrault took him to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, an amusement park and other locations and had touched him inappropriately as many as 100 times starting when he was 10.
The abuse ended in 1992, the same year Perrault vanished from the state as an attorney prepared to file two lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe alleging Perrault had sexually assaulted seven children.
"He fled to escape justice because he knew he was guilty," federal prosecutor Sean Sullivan said.
Authorities believe Perrault had dozens of victims in New Mexico and more in Connecticut, both boys and girls. However, the federal charges against him stemmed only from the treatment of the one boy at Kirtland, where Perrault served as a chaplain, and at Santa Fe National Cemetery.
Perrault's attorney Sam Winder said the former priest maintained his innocence and planned to appeal the conviction.
Perrault joined the active duty Air Force in April 1970, where he served for 14 years — the majority of it at Kirtland — before becoming a reservist in August 1984. His last active-duty station was at the now-closed Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, where he served for about three months before transferring to the Reserve. He reportedly receives retirement pay.
The verdict came as the Roman Catholic church faces mounting pressure to do more to address the decades-long clergy abuse scandal.
In New Mexico, dozens of victims have won more than $50 million in settlements from the Santa Fe Archdiocese, which has filed for bankruptcy protection as a result of lawsuits.
In 2016, Perrault was among more than 70 clergy members on a list released by the Santa Fe Archdiocese identifying those who had been credibly accused of abusing children in New Mexico.
He first arrived in the state in the 1960s after church officials in Connecticut sent him to a center — located in the secluded Jemez Mountains north of Albuquerque — that treated priests accused of sexual abuse.
The facility was operated by the Servants of the Paraclete religious order.
Federal authorities said their decades-long pursuit of Perrault showed how far they were willing to go to bring him to justice.
He was arrested in 2017 in Tangier, Morocco, where authorities say he had been teaching at an English language school for children.
The African country has no extradition treaty with the United States but expelled Perrault after his arrest, allowing the U.S. to bring him back to New Mexico last September to face charges of aggravated sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact.
The cemetery and military base where the abuse occurred are within federal jurisdiction, and the charges carry no statute of limitations.
"Despite the passage of many years, and Arthur Perrault's efforts to evade justice and deny his victims their day in court, he has at long last been held accountable for his crimes," U.S. Attorney John Anderson said in a statement.
The jury returned the verdict several hours after beginning deliberations. Some people who were present when the verdict was read broke down in tears.
Perrault was expressionless as he left the courtroom with the aid of a walker.
Elaine Montoya, 59, of Albuquerque had traveled to Santa Fe to learn the verdict. She said she had been sexually abused by Perrault, starting when she was 14 and grew frustrated with the church’s lack of response over the years.
"It's a precedent and it's saying to people that we are no longer going to tolerate abuse by Roman Catholic priests here in New Mexico," Montoya said of the verdict.
She did not testify in the criminal case.
A sentencing hearing for Perrault has not been scheduled.