Minnesota prosecutor asks for pope’s help in returning priest to face sex assault charges

By Patrick Condon , Associated Press

A Minnesota prosecutor directly appealed to Pope Benedict XVI for help Tuesday as she tries to get an Indian priest back to the United States to face sexual assault charges.

Roseau County Attorney Lisa Hanson mailed Benedict a letter asking him to intervene in the case of the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, who is charged with two counts of criminal sexual conduct for the alleged assault of a 14-year-old female parishioner while he served at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Greenbush, Minn., in late 2004.

Jeyapaul returned to India before the charges were filed in early 2007, and continues to serve in the Diocese of Ootacamund. He denies the allegations.

Asking Benedict to exercise his “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power” under Canon Law, Hanson wrote that he could expedite Jeyapaul’s return and help the state of Minnesota avoid a lengthy extradition process.

A Vatican attorney had no immediate comment on the letter. The Vatican said last week that officials thought Jeyapaul should be defrocked, but church law left the decision to his bishop in India.

Hanson confirmed Tuesday that she sent the letter but declined further comment. Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who is representing Jeyapaul’s accuser in a separate civil lawsuit, provided The Associated Press with a copy of the letter.

Hanson said her office filed an extradition request with the Department of Justice last fall; she said department officials warned her

it could take as long as four to five years if Jeyapaul decides to fight it.

Jeyapaul came to Minnesota in 2004, and was assigned to the church in Greenbush, just south of the Canadian border. In early 2005 he returned to India to visit his ailing mother; while he was there, allegations came to the attention of Diocese of Crookston officials that he had an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old girl.

Crookston Bishop Victor Balke contacted Jeyapaul in India and told him not to return to the diocese or he would go to the police. It was more than a year later that Jeyapaul was charged with assaulting the younger teenage girl.

Balke had raised concerns about Jeyapaul’s continued service to the church in letters to several top Vatican officials. The Most Rev. A. Almaraj, the bishop of the Diocese of Ootacamund, held a canonical trial and sentenced Jeyapaul to a year in a monastery.

Almaraj said he couldn’t do more unless Jeyapaul’s guilt was proved, and the 55-year-old priest now works in the bishop’s office handling paperwork for schools.

Hanson wrote to Benedict that facilitating Jeyapaul’s return to Minnesota would “send an unequivocal message to the world that the church has finally cast off the shroud of secrecy that has surrounded sexual abuse of children by the clergy for years.”

Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.