(CN) — A former Catholic priest convicted of sexually abusing minors in the 1990s told a 10th Circuit panel Thursday that the jury that found him guilty was clearly predisposed to distrust him after listening to several other witnesses who said they saw him commit similar acts of abuse.
In October 2019, a jury convicted Arthur Perrault, then 81, of sexually abusing children at Santa Fe National Cemetery and Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, where he served as a chaplain in the 1990s.
Throughout the trial, several other victims came forward to testify that Perrault had abused them hundreds of times as young boys under the age of 12, while he served as a Catholic priest at St. Bernadette’s parish and Our Lady of Assumption in Albuquerque. The tales of abuse went back as far as 1966, when Perrault was teaching at St. Pius Catholic High School.
Perrault fled the country in 1992, as a New Mexico state attorney was preparing lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe over the priest’s alleged crimes. Perrault was finally extradited from Morocco in 2018 to stand trial.
Following the trial, U.S. District judge Martha Vazquez, appointed by Bill Clinton, sentenced Perrault to 30 years in prison.
On Thursday, public defender Aric Grant Elsenheimer told a 10th Circuit panel Vazquez had erred in letting seven propensity witnesses testify.
“What if the court allowed five?” asked U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips, a Barack Obama appointee.
When Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Joel M. Carson III repeated the question in search of the fair number of witnesses, Elsenheimer deflected.
“In a sexual abuse case, the fundamental defense is going to the veracity of the alleged victim in this case, which is John Doe I, and identifying the potential that witness has to fabricate or make a false allegation,” Elsenheimer said. “In a case like this, where you have so many propensity witnesses, it overwhelms the ability to establish a basis to attack the credibility of the named alleged victim in the indictment.”
He added: “I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but in a case like this, it renders the trial a character assassination on the defendant.”
Arguing for the Justice Department, attorney Sean Sullivan outlined the need for each witness.
“I submit to you each of these witnesses had value, and trial counsel never asked for what appellate counsel is asking for,” Sullivan said. “The defendant Arthur Perrault categorically denied ever abusing John Doe I at all and his defense counsel aggressively attacked John Doe on a number of points.”
As a result, Sullivan said, other witnesses were needed to establish that behaviors like gift-giving fell into Perrault’s patterns of abuse. Since Perrault outright denied going to Kirkland Air Force Base during the time John Doe said he was abused, Sullivan said every other witness who said they were abused there at that time provided value to the prosecutors. Perrault also acknowledged abusing two of the other witnesses, establishing what Sullivan called “a baseline of truth.”
According to briefs submitted by Perrault’s defense, several prospective jurors were removed during selection who had personally met Perrault during his priesthood. Another juror who experienced unrelated abuse was also removed.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Seymour, appointed by Jimmy Carter, rounded out the panel in a hearing broadcast remotely on YouTube. The judges did not say when or how they would rule.