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Man who set up home for kids in Haiti charged with sexual abuse

  • Story Highlights
  • Feds: Douglas Perlitz, 39, faces 10 counts in alleged abuse of nine boys
  • Perlitz was arrested at his home in Colorado, but had lived for years in Haiti
  • Perlitz was director of the Project Pierre Toussaint in Haiti
  • If convicted, Perlitz faces up to 30 years in prison and fine of $2.5 million
By Mariano Castillo
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(CNN) -- An American who founded a home for needy children in Haiti more than 10 years ago has been accused of sexually abusing some of the same boys he set out to help, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Project Pierre Toussaint operated on this street in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. An American allegedly abused boys there.

Project Pierre Toussaint operated on this street in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. An American allegedly abused boys there.

Douglas Perlitz, 39, who was indicted this week by a grand jury in Fairfield County, Connecticut, faces 10 counts related to the sexual abuse of nine boys for about a decade, the Justice Department said.

Seven of those counts are for traveling outside of the United States with the intent to have sex with minors, and three counts are for engaging in sexual conduct with minors in a foreign place, according to the indictment.

Perlitz was arrested Wednesday morning at his home in Colorado, but he had lived for years in Haiti, the Justice Department said in a news release. The Haiti Fund Inc., the nonprofit fundraising arm of his project, was incorporated in Connecticut, where Perlitz had attended Fairfield University.

A U.S. magistrate ordered Perlitz detained pending a federal court hearing Friday in Denver. Perlitz was in custody Thursday, and it was not clear whether he had retained an attorney.

The Justice Department said Perlitz used his position as director of the Project Pierre Toussaint in Haiti to manipulate and abuse the boys.

He allegedly enticed the nine boys with promises of food and shelter and with gifts such as cell phones and cash, the indictment states.

If convicted, Perlitz faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and fine of $2.5 million, according to the department.

Haiti's abject poverty, threadbare social-service network and barely functioning legal system combine to make the country's street kids particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Despite its lush tropical setting, the country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and has the highest rates of mortality among infants and children under five years of age. One-third of Haitian children under five suffer chronic malnutrition, according to United Nations statistics; just over half of school-age kids are enrolled in schools.

With the state unable to alleviate those ills, private foreign charities work hard to fill the void.

Perlitz -- and his Project Pierre Toussaint -- were seen as bright young examples of how outside agencies could make a difference in the lives of destitute Haitian children, offering food, education and sanctuary from the perilous life on the streets. In 2002, Fairfield University, Perlitz's alma mater, honored his efforts by making him its commencement speaker.

One volunteer who traveled twice to Project Pierre Toussaint to run a soccer and basketball camp there said the charges against Perlitz were shocking.

"I don't believe one ounce of it," Matt Pawlick of Miami, Florida, told CNN. "He had a passion and love to help those kids grow."

According to the indictment, Perlitz first traveled to Haiti as a student at Fairfield University and became inspired to build a school there.

In 1997, he received a grant from the Roman Catholic Order of Malta to start a center to help street children, which grew into a boarding school for boys that provided meals, sports activities and classroom instruction, the indictment states. The school was in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.

Once the Haiti Fund was created, it raised more than $2 million between 2002 and 2008, funds that were transferred to Perlitz to run the project, the indictment said.

According to the court document, Perlitz would take some of the minors to a restaurant, give them food and alcohol and then encourage them to spend the night with him.

The indictment alleges that Perlitz showed homosexual pornography to some of the youths as well.

In 2007, Haitian journalist Cyrus Sibert was the first to report about rumors of sexual abuse at the school.

"I found many children who told me the situation at the project," Sibert told CNN, referring to the allegations.

His reports spurred investigations by Haitian authorities as well as by the board of directors of the Haiti Fund.

The indictment alleges that "Perlitz used his relationship with a religious leader and influential board members to continue to conceal, and attempt to conceal, illegal sexual conduct," in one instance by barring investigators from entering his room, and by helping remove two computers that were locked in a safe.

As attention over the allegations grew, the board ultimately dismissed Perlitz in 2008, Paul Kendrick, an advocate for victims of abuse by clergy familiar with the case, told CNN.

Kendrick, a fellow Fairfield University graduate who met Perlitz during a visit to Haiti, said the removal proved controversial among the backers of Project Pierre Toussaint.

By early 2009, the school was closed, Sibert said.

Board members referred questions from CNN to an attorney, who was not immediately available.

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