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The little city of Cornwall, Ont., is not a place you'd expect unspeakable secrets to lurk. But for the past seven years, it has been racked by a dark drama that has shredded reputations and driven men to suicide. The villains, it's alleged, are that most loathsome form of human life -- pedophiles. The pedophiles allegedly include Catholic priests and the city's leading citizens.

The so-called pedophile ring has sparked endless charges of cover-ups and corruption in high places. The local MP is demanding a provincial inquiry. Some people even think the police may be in cahoots with the guilty. "The hysteria has been palpable," says Jacques Leduc, a respected lawyer who has lived in Cornwall all his life. "It has been a rather dark moment in our region's history."

The latest effort to track down the sex abusers is called Project Truth. It was launched in 1997 by the Ontario Provincial Police after the local police force was torn apart by the controversy. Since then, Project Truth has laid more than 100 charges against 14 men. But, so far, there has been not a single conviction. Six of the cases have yet to proceed. Four of the accused are dead. One man was acquitted; one was found unfit to stand trial; one had his charges dropped last fall. And one case was thrown out of court last week after a spectacular prosecutorial debacle. That case was Jacques Leduc's.

It all began in 1992, when the local Catholic church, in an effort to avert a criminal case, paid $32,000 in a private settlement to someone who said he was abused as an altar boy by a parish priest. The priest's guilt or innocence has never been tested in court.

Then along came a crusading cop named Perry Dunlop. Mr. Dunlop was scandalized that his own police force had decided there wasn't enough evidence to nail the priest. It was personal; Mr. Dunlop was a fervent convert to Catholicism, and the priest was his family priest.

His bosses told Mr. Dunlop to mind his own business. But he became obsessed, convinced that Cornwall's children were in peril from the priest and other predators. "If a loose cannon is protecting children, then I'm a loose cannon," he told the CBC's fifth estate in 1995. "We need to protect our children no matter what the rules say." He and his wife, Helen, launched their own private investigations and scoured the town for more victims. Eventually, other men came forward with stories of abuse by priests, probation officers, even a judge. The Dunlops claimed the Cornwall pedophile ring went back for decades. They were depicted as heroes in Chatelaine and, last month, in The Report magazine. CBC Radio aired other stories that left no doubt that something evil had happened in Cornwall.

Meantime, another loose cannon named Dick Nadeau cranked up a crackpot Web site full of wild conspiracy theories and lists of alleged perpetrators. Three of the many men accused in the past few years have killed themselves.

Why would any accuser (none of whom can be identified) level false allegations? An obvious answer is money. In the past decade, people claiming to have been abused as children by men in positions of power have won millions of dollars in civil settlements. Some of these claims were legitimate; many were not. A dozen men from Cornwall are currently suing the province for $4.8-million.

Jacques Leduc was the church's lawyer in 1992. For conspiracy theorists, that was proof enough; they believed he was at the heart of the cover-up. In 1998, he was arrested after two men claimed he'd assaulted them while they were teenagers doing casual jobs around his house. "I am not a man who is faint of heart," says Mr. Leduc. "But this was devastating."

His trial began in January. Then, last week, came a stunning revelation: The crusading cop's fingerprints were all over the case. The mother of a witness testified that Mr. Dunlop had told her the best way to bleed Mr. Leduc dry was through a civil action. After that, her son went after Mr. Leduc for $2-million. (In a different trial last year, a witness described how Mr. Dunlop had coached him to perjure himself.) What's more stunning, the Crown attorney knew of the Dunlop connection but concealed it.

The judge declared that Mr. Leduc's chance for a fair trial had been ruined, and threw out the case. "The two of them," he said, referring to Mr. Dunlop and Mr. Nadeau, "have the capacity to destroy lives and wreck cases."

Jacques Leduc and his family can now get on with their lives. Perry Dunlop, perhaps sensing the heat, has moved to B.C., where he continues his rants. But he leaves behind a legion of converts who were furious at the judge's ruling. They're still convinced that an army of child molesters roams free in Cornwall.

So far, Project Truth has found as many real pedophiles in Cornwall as there were real witches in Salem. But as Jacques Leduc and many other blameless men know, that is one truth that Project Truth is not deterred by.