Crookston Diocese Settles With Alleged Victim

A woman who says she was sexually abused by a former priest in northern Minnesota when she was 14 has reached a $750,000 settlement that requires the Diocese of Crookston to warn parishioners about the abuse and take steps to protect kids in the future.

Megan Peterson, now 21, of Thief River Falls, appeared at a news conference Tuesday in St. Paul to announce the settlement. She chose to come forward “to let people know they are not alone.”

“I’m here today to speak my truth, and to protect kids,” she said.

Peterson says she was a teenager with aspirations of becoming a nun when she was raped multiple times by the Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul, a priest from India who had been appointed to serve at three parishes in northwest Minnesota. Peterson says she told the diocese about the abuse, but a person there hung up on her. She then told a school counselor.

Criminal charges were ultimately filed, but not before Jeyapaul returned to India.

Roseau County prosecutors are seeking to extradite Jeyapaul to face two counts of criminal sexual conduct. Jeyapaul has said he is innocent and has refused to return to Minnesota.

“We’re scared for those kids in India,” said Jeff Anderson, Peterson’s attorney in her lawsuit against the Crookston diocese.

The diocese, which denied liability as part of the settlement, released a statement Tuesday saying: “The Diocese of Crookston regrets any harm that may have come to any person due to the actions of Fr. Jeyapaul, and the hardships the parishes have endured during this difficult time.”

The Rev. Babu Joseph Karakombil, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said he had no comment.

But it seems Jeyapaul has some support in India. Anderson gave reporters a copy of a letter he received in 2010, addressed to him and the prosecutor in Roseau County, professing Jeyapaul’s innocence and asking that the “false allegations” be dropped. The letter, from the Christian Rights Movement in India, was signed by 1,182 people and says: “All of us, without any reservation, will vouch for his impeccable character as a priest.”

Jeyapaul came to Minnesota in 2004, after an international background check. Peterson said she had contact with Jeyapaul at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Greenbush, just south of the Canadian border, and at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Middle River.

Jeyapaul left Minnesota in 2005 and returned to India to care for his sick mother. While he was overseas, the Diocese of Crookston received allegations that he had an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old girl, who has remained anonymous.

Crookston Bishop Victor Balke contacted Jeyapaul in India and told him not to return to the diocese. Jeyapaul was then charged in 2006 with assaulting Peterson, who was 14 at the time of her alleged abuse.

The Associated Press typically does not name victims of sexual abuse, but Peterson wanted to come forward. She spoke softly and was composed, but visibly shaking at times. She had to leave the news conference briefly – later saying she was feeling sick.

As part of the settlement, reached this summer before the case was scheduled to go to trial, the Crookston diocese agreed to warn parishioners about Jeyapaul and urge victims of abuse to come forward. The diocese will post a picture of him and information about the alleged abuse on its website for two years, and they’ll publish his picture in parish bulletins at least four times over the next two years.

The diocese also agreed to notify the Bishop of the Diocese of Ootacamund about the settlement and express concern that the Jeyapaul is still serving in India. The diocese will also continue to conduct background checks on employees and volunteers, and mandate annual training on child abuse.

Peterson said that as a girl with strong faith, she often went to church before school to pray. She said she was abused in the church confessional and in Jeyapaul’s office, and the abuse happened before and after school, and after she helped with a weekend Mass.

A couple years ago, Peterson tried to kill herself and was hospitalized. She is feeling better now – and has painted depictions of the torture she experienced as part of her therapy. She has finished classes at a community college and will attend Winona State to study child protection and advocacy.

“Things have gotten way better. I’m now willing and wanting to live life and help other people,” she said. “It’s not dark anymore.”

She said her faith in God and the church was “taken” by Jeyapaul, and she wants to make sure he can’t hurt other kids.

“I just think he needs to be out of ministry and away from kids and that’s my main concern right now,” she said. “I won’t rest until he is.”

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.