September 21, 2018 / 9:22 PM / 3 months ago

Fugitive New Mexico priest pleads not guilty to abuse charges

(Reuters) - A former Catholic priest who fled the United States after allegations he sexually abused a child in the 1990s has been extradited from Morocco and faced charges in New Mexico on Friday, U.S. officials said.

The Catholic Church worldwide is reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors, deeply damaging confidence in the Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland where the scandal has hit hardest, and elsewhere.

An indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Sept. 21, 2017, charges Arthur Perrault, 80, with six counts of aggravated sexual abuse and one count of abusive sexual contact.

At an arraignment on Friday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen, Perrault pleaded not guilty to all seven counts against him, according to the clerk’s minutes of the proceeding.

Perrault’s lawyer Samuel Winder did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If convicted, Perrault faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for the aggravated sexual abuse charges and up to 10 years in prison for the abusive sexual contact charge, U.S. Attorney John Anderson for the District of New Mexico told a news conference.

Perrault was arrested by Moroccan authorities shortly after last year’s indictment and had been in custody ever since, Special Agent in Charge James Langenberg, of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Albuquerque Division, told the news conference.

The FBI’s investigation located Perrault in Morocco and FBI agents flew there and took custody of him on Thursday, Langenberg said.

“There are probably some people who doubted Mr. Perrault would ever be brought back to New Mexico to face a judge after being away for so long. It was important to prove them wrong for one reason - the victim in this case,” Langenberg said.

Although only one alleged victim is mentioned in the indictment, prosecutors said in a separate court document that Perrault is a serial child molester who abused numerous victims over more than 20 years as a priest in New Mexico and Rhode Island. He fled the United States in 1992 when his criminal conduct became public, according to a court document.

“This indictment alleges a profound breach of trust by a man who was widely perceived as a mentor to young people and a respected figure in the community,” Anderson said.

Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, N.M.; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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