Priest's Arrest Shocks Haitians in N.J. the Rev. Jean-Level Eliscard Is Accused of Child Sex Abuse
The Charges Were Met with Disbelief by Many
By Marjorie Valbrun
November 29, 1994
He delivered his Sunday sermons with poignant eloquence. He dispensed spiritual guidance with gentle words of advice. He took part in choir practice, teaching the young parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Church new Creole spirituals from his native Haiti.
In just three short months, all agree, the Rev. Jean-Level Eliscard had become a beloved member of Trenton's growing Haitian Catholic community. Everyone was talking about the bright, handsome young priest who moved people with his powerful homilies and warmed hearts with his friendly smile.
People are talking about Father Eliscard even more these days,but now it's in hushed tones, through pain-filled tears or angry defenses. Since his arrest on Saturday at a New York airport, where police say Father Eliscard was trying to flee the country to evade child sex abuse charges, Haitians here have been trying to make sense of accusations they find hard to believe.
"It pains our hearts," said Elmicia Dimanche, who joined the church six months ago. "One of our own, a priest no less, is in jail. They have branded him a criminal, and none of us is sure what is really going on."
Said another parishioner, 18, a female member of the choir: "I was shocked. Father Eliscard is so nice. He would never do those types of things. Everyone says it's not true."
Police say it is. Yesterday, after he was transported from New York and booked into the Mercer County Detention Center, they added a new charge - attempted aggravated sexual assault.
Father Eliscard, 28, a visiting priest at the church, already stood charged with aggravated criminal sexual contact, child abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child.
All the charges stem from a Sept. 27 incident in which, according to police, a church member from Hamilton Township arrived home to find Father Eliscard molesting his 13- year-old daughter, who was home alone that day.
The two men, neither of whom could be reached for comment, had a discussion, and the priest left the house, police said. Father Eliscard returned unannounced to the child's house two weeks later, police said, but this time the child's mother was home, and he left. That's when the child's father told his wife about the earlier incident, and they decided to report it to the church.
It was a decision that was bound to bring controversy to the area's Haitian community. In Haitian culture, members of the clergy are highly revered authority figures; accusations like those lodged against Father Eliscard are
rarely voiced publicly, and they never involve the police.
Even the victim's father, a devout Catholic, was reluctant to go to church authorities with the information, according to police. But when he finally did last Friday, officials of the Trenton Diocese, using guidelines issued last year by the New Jersey Catholic Conference, quickly called police.
Father Eliscard learned that authorities were after him, police said, and quickly made arrangements to flee. He was arrested at 10:40 Saturday morning at John F. Kennedy Airport, holding an American Airlines ticket for an 11:30 a.m. flight to Haiti.
Even his airport apprehension has not shattered supporters' confidence in Father Eliscard.
"There are serious questions about the allegations," said one church worker who did not want to be named. Many of the parishioners don't believe them, the worker said. "There's a lot of animosity toward the family that made this accusation."
On Sunday, after Mass, a statement was read to the congregation about Father Eliscard's arrest. Some in the congregation wept openly. Later that night, 60 Haitian congregants met at the downtown Trenton church for an informational meeting called by the church fathers.
Most of those there vowed to support Father Eliscard.
"He was a wonderful man, a wonderful priest," said Brian Stevens, who helps run programs at the diocese's Haitian Center, a walk-in social-service center behind the church. "He worked well for the community. Attendance increased at the Creole Masses when he took over. They loved him. They are shocked; they are hurt. There's a wide amount of disbelief among the community members."
That's not the case among Hamilton Township police detectives investigating the case.
"From what I gathered from talking to the investigators, there's no doubt in their minds," said Sgt. Chuck Stanley of the township's detective bureau. "They feel very confident that the victim's story is accurate and from the corroborating information the father gave."
Stanley said Haitians' strong respect for priests also lends credibility to the victim and her family's claims.
Father Eliscard came to the United States in June on vacation but was stranded when an international economic embargo against Haiti's former military rulers halted all international flights to the island. He joined St. Francis as a visiting priest in August and was also involved with the Holy Spirit Church in Asbury Park.
On Sunday afternoon, Msgr. Walter Nolan, the diocese's director of priest personnel, met with Father Eliscard in New York, where he was being detained.
"He was apprehensive, a little upset over not knowing what is going to be happening. He knows it's serious," Msgr. Nolan said. "We have grave concerns for the (victim's) family, the parish family and this priest. This is upsetting to the community, like it would be in any community. Their priest has received some level of notoriety."
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