By PATRICK CONDON and RAVI NESSMAN , Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Top officials at the Vatican were warned more than four years ago about a Catholic priest later charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Minnesota, according to newly released Vatican correspondence, but to this day he continues to work in his home diocese in India.
Prosecutors in Minnesota said Monday they are trying to extradite the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul. Jeyapaul denied the abuse allegations and said he has no plans to return to the United States to face the courts.
The Vatican said Monday it has cooperated with U.S. law enforcement officials working to extradite Jeyapaul. In a statement to The Associated Press, Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena said the Holy See handed over the priest’s address in India. He said the Vatican had recommended Jeyapaul be defrocked, because it believed the charges were serious enough, but that his local bishop in India refused.
The bishop, the Most Rev. A. Almaraj of the diocese of Ootacamund, said he had disciplined Jeyapaul by sending him to a monastery for prayer.
Jeyapaul was charged in Minnesota in 2007, more than a year after he returned to India. Officials in the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, had told him to stay there after allegations against him first surfaced.
Almaraj said Jeyapaul works in his office processing teacher appointments for a dozen church schools and does not work with children.
In a May 2006 letter to the Bishop Victor Balke of the Diocese of Crookston, Archbishop Angelo Amato wrote that Jeyapaul’s bishop had been instructed to monitor him “so that he does not constitute a risk to minors and does not create scandal.”
Amato was secretary to Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles all abuse cases. In subsequent letters, Balke warned both Levada and a top Vatican official in the U.S. about Jeyapaul. “It is difficult for me to quantify the harm that this man has done to the dignity of the priesthood,” Balke wrote to Levada on Dec. 21, 2006.
The letters are among evidence against Jeyapaul provided to The Associated Press by Jeff Anderson, the attorney for Jeyapaul’s accuser.
Jeyapaul is wanted in the U.S. on two counts of criminal sexual conduct stemming from accusations he assaulted a young, female parishioner in the fall of 2004 at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Greenbush, where he was working. Each charge carries a sentence of up to 30 years.
According to the criminal complaint, the teenage girl accused Jeyapaul of threatening to kill her family if she did not come into the rectory, where he then forced her to perform oral sex on him and groped her.
“It is a false accusation against me,” Jeyapaul told the AP in a phone interview. “I do not know that girl at all.”
Lisa Hanson, the prosecutor in northern Minnesota’s Roseau County, said her office is in the process of trying to extradite Jeyapaul. She wouldn’t provide specifics on the timing or approach but said her office has been working with the U.S. Justice Department. Officials at India’s Foreign Ministry were not immediately available to discuss whether the U.S. asked for Jeyapaul’s extradition.
“He’s charged with serious felonies here in this country,” Hanson said. “We want justice for the victim here and we want to do whatever we can to protect potential future victims everywhere.”
Almaraj said the Vatican did not take any part in disciplining Jeyapaul.
“We cannot simply throw out the priest, so he is just staying in the bishop’s house, and he is helping me with the appointment of teachers,” Almaraj said. “He says he is innocent, and these are only allegations. … I don’t know what else to do.”
Anderson held a news conference Monday to draw attention to the Jeyapaul case, demanding he be suspended and returned to the U.S. to face justice.
“Everyone knew there was a serious problem, but they chose not to ask and they chose not to tell,” Anderson said.
The Vatican has denounced such accusations and has blamed the media for what it calls a smear campaign against the pope and his advisers.
The Vatican has insisted Pope Benedict XVI takes such accusations seriously and cracked down on abuse in 2001 by ordering dioceses to inform the Vatican of all such cases. However, the Vatican hasn’t issued any guidelines requiring bishops to heed civil authorities, though it insists nothing in its directives precludes such cooperation.
Almaraj said the church had never discussed asking Jeyapaul to return to the United States to appear in court.
“No steps were taken. Nobody talked about that. Nobody asked about that,” Almaraj said.
Right after the accusations against Jeyapaul first surfaced in 2005, the priest returned home to visit his ailing mother.
“My mother told me to remain here, and the (Crookston) bishop also told me not to come back, because these allegations have come against you,” Jeyapaul said.
On Dec. 21, 2006, Balke wrote about the accusations against Jeyapaul to both Levada and the Most Rev. Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador, to the United States.
“I hope that for the good of the Church you are able to reach a speedy resolution to this case,” he wrote to Levada, according to a letter obtained by AP.
A week later, Rev. Sambi wrote to Bishop Balke: “I assure you that this material has already been forwarded to the Holy See.”
Officials in the Diocese of Crookston, which was closed Monday, did not immediately respond to a phone message.
Almaraj said he sent Jeyapaul to a monastery for a year of prayer and asked the local parishes where the priest had worked previously if there were any prior cases of possible abuse. None came to light, he said.
Almaraj then assigned Jeyapaul to the bishop’s house, where he is in charge of compiling seniority lists for teachers in the diocese’s schools.
Nessman reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report.