Deadly demonstrations fueled by skyrocketing prices, alleged government corruption and a lack of social services have rocked Haiti — long considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. State Department has recalled non-emergency personnel and urged people not to travel to the island country.
“Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents and emergency response, including ambulance service, is limited or nonexistent,” the State Department warned.
Against that backdrop, advocates like Paul Kendrick, a 1972 Fairfield University graduate, and Cyrus Sibert, a Haitian journalist, worry that the expected $250,000-each payout to the latest group of 133 victims of the Project Pierre Toussaint sex scandal will be targeted by criminal groups, unscrupulous financial planners and other crooks.
The advocates point to 23 victims who shared an initial $12 million settlement in 2013.
“From the moment the funds were deposited into their bank accounts, the victims had targets on their backs,” said Kendrick, who has spent the last 12 years advocating for the victims.
It all began in 1997 as a story of hope for the 10,000 abandoned boys living by their wits, begging for food and clothes and sleeping in alleyways and flat roofs in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city.
Along came Douglas Perlitz, a 1992 Fairfield University graduate, with plans to help. He started his program in a parking lot, handing out food and clothes. It grew into a house and then an eight-building compound with dormitories, classrooms, a dining hall and athletic fields protected by tall concrete walls and an iron gate.
The plan was to feed, clothe, shelter and educate the boys.
But inside the walls darker things happened.
Boys would be awakened from their sleep by Perlitz or invited to his nearby home, where they would be forced to engage in sexual acts. Resistance would often mean expulsion to a life on the streets. Nearly 160 boys maintain they were victimized.
At the request of Hearst Connecticut Media, Georges Bossous, Jr. a psychotherapist who in 2012 interviewed 20 of the victims who participated in the first settlement, reached out to one of them and asked how others were faring.
What Bossous learned was disheartening. At least eight were broke, he was told, and six of those eight were arrested and spent fortunes fighting for their release. Two lost their homes.
Another sought to build a house, only to be duped out of much of his money by an engineer. He now taxis people on a scooter, Bossous said.
Some fared better, and attended a university in the adjacent Dominican Republican, Sibert said.
“The youngest of the group ... is doing well,” the Haitian journalist said. “He invested in some business and real estate. He is very disciplined.”
Mostly, though, they had fallen short of the goals — playing professional soccer, teaching or becoming masons, lawyers and agronomists — they set when interviewed in 2009 by Hearst Connecticut Media.
“We feel we are about to witness the same mistake by giving the victims money without any proper psychological help or financial planning assistance,” said Bossous, the executive director of Word and Action, a Florida agency that helps child sexual abuse victims. “It is totally irresponsible that no one involved in the case knows or inquired about the result of the first disbursed settlement money.”
Meanwhile, in Cap-Haitien, prices for beans, rice, milk and water have soared with inflation. The buildings that once made up Project Pierre Toussaint, are shuttered. The Haiti Fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from wealthy Fairfield and Westchester County residents, is broke.
Perlitz was indicted in Connecticut, pleaded guilty to traveling overseas to engage in sex with a minor and sentenced to 19 years and seven months in prison. His expected release date from the Seagoville, Texas, correctional institution is 2026.
The current cash payout proposal would settle claims against Perlitz, Fairfield University and the Rev. Paul E. Carrier — Fairfield University’s former chaplain and Perlitz’s mentor — and against the Society of Jesus of New England and the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, which provided a start-up grant and additional monies to Project Pierre-Toussaint.
It would also settle claims against the defunct Haiti Fund Inc., which served as Project Pierre Toussaint’s nonprofit fundraising arm, and Hope Carter, a New Canaan philanthropist and former member of the Haiti Fund’s board of directors.
An economy in ruins
The settlement received preliminary approval from Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny during a Feb. 11 hearing in his Hartford courtroom. A number of legal steps have to be taken before Chatigny signs off on a final settlement, which is expected to happen later this year.
“The situation of victims is very difficult in a country like Haiti, which is in the throes of an economic disaster,” said Sibert, who, in 2007 exposed the crimes being committed inside Project Pierre Toussaint. “Many of (the 133 victims) are sleeping in the street. They are sick, need food and medical assistance.”
As a result, some of the victims were washing cars in the street just to get by.
“But now with the fuel crisis, there are less cars on the streets and less cars to wash,” Sibert he said. “This new group of victims needs an emergency plan, because all the paperwork takes too long.”
Bossous, a psychologist and mental health therapist in Miami who has ties to Haiti, suspects many of the victims are suffering from the same disorders as those he interviewed in 2012. At that time, he determined most suffered from depression, anxiety, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.
“This, of course, is not surprising, given that these young men were twice victimized,” he explained. “Once by the perpetrator-caretaker, and again by their community who banished them for daring to reveal and shedding light on their abuse.”
He called for court-ordered psychotherapy for the current group.
Kendrick and Bossous say there should be provisions for “culturally competent, professional counseling, vocational and support services ...With this much can be accomplished.”
“It is naive to think that the victims will seek out counseling and vocational services in Haiti,” added Kendrick. “None is available. These services must be provided to them.”
Kendrick said $5 million should have been set aside to endow the establishment of a Community Counseling Center in Cap-Haitien which would provide mental health services, vocational training and education and sexual abuse awareness.
“The $5 million would support $200,000 to $250,000 in operating expenses each year without having to disturb the principal,” Kendrick said.
“Huge cash deposits in Haitian bank accounts is not prudent,” added Kendrick. “This settlement should have had one and only one stipulation — that funds will be distributed over the recipients’ lifetime, with survivor benefits.”
“Anything less,” he said is “one big waste of money ... The lawyers, the judge and officials from the Jesuits, Fairfield University and the Order of Malta might just as well hire a helicopter to fly them over Cap Haitien so they can drop $60 million worth of $20 bills overboard.”
Both Stanley A. Twardy Jr., Connecticut’s former U.S. Attorney who represents Fairfield University and Mitchell Garabedian, the victims’ Boston-based lawyer, said the agreement has an option in which each member of the class may elect to receive all, a portion or none of their settlement payment as a structured settlement payment.
Selecting this option would result in a periodic annuity payments from MetLife to the payee over time, Garabedian said. Additionally if the victim dies, the money would be paid periodically to his beneficiary or his estate.
Twardy said there is also a process in place that will allow KCC Class Action Services to administer emergency payments of in the thousands of dollars to victims before the final payments are made.
“This settlement is changing the lives of many impoverished Haitian children who lived in a horrible darkness compounded by being sexually abused,” said Garabedian, whose work was dramatized in featured in “Spotlight,” the movie about sexual abuse in the Boston Diocese. “These brave victims have taught me so much about living and life.”
But Garabedian, who has represented victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and employees around the world, is not convinced such a crime will never happen again in Haiti or elsewhere.
“I believe a situation involving the wholesale sexual abuse of children involving NGOs (non-governmental organizations) has happened, will happen again and is happening now,” he said. “History has taught us that many institutions worry much more about their own image and financial gain than the safety of children.
“Clergy sexual abuse of children and the sexual abuse of children by others both have strong footholds in poverty-stricken countries because sexual abuse victims and their families are impoverished, corruption exists, lack of any governmental laws and influence caused by the basic necessities of life given to them by the very institutions which allow them to be sexually abused,” Garabedian said.