Priest on the lam in assault of Minnesota girl arrested in India

A fugitive Roman Catholic priest has been arrested in India after seven years on the run from charges that he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old Minnesota girl who sought his advice about becoming a nun.

The Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul’s case was included in a March 11 story in the Tribune. His alleged victim, Megan Peterson, who is now 22, said in an interview Monday that she was taken off guard by the arrest after so many years of waiting.

“I find it quite ironic that we did that interview and then a week later he is in handcuffs,” Peterson said. “I wasn’t expecting it to happen this fast.”

Peterson said she was still firmly committed to testifying against Jeyapaul if he is extradited to Minnesota to face trial. “I am ready — it’s about time,” she said. “If my voice can help, then I’ll be there.”

The Tribune does not usually name victims of sexual abuse, but Peterson has chosen to speak publicly about her allegations, saying she hopes it will help others.

In the past, Jeyapaul has asserted his innocence and continued to serve as a priest in India, where he was prohibited from direct contact with children.

He was arrested Friday and is being held pending a formal U.S. request for his extradition, to be filed in New Delhi, The Associated Press reported.

In Minnesota, Roseau County Attorney Karen Foss said she had little more information. TheU.S. Justice Departmentdeclined comment Monday, as did the Crookston Diocese in Minnesota.

Jeyapaul is one of at least 32 Roman Catholic priests nationwide who, the Tribune found, have fled to foreign countries since 1985 while facing criminal charges or being investigated over allegations that they sexually assaulted or abused youths in the United States. Only five of them have been returned to the U.S. to face trial.

Like many other international fugitives traced by the Tribune as part of its “Fugitives From Justice” investigation, priests accused of sexual misconduct often returned to their hometowns and did little to conceal their identities or whereabouts, the newspaper found.

Efforts to extradite another priest who fled to his native India, the Rev. Sleeva Raju Policetti, have dragged on for nearly a decade. Policetti was charged in 2002 with 20 counts of criminal sexual assault and abuse of a 16-year-old Chicago girl, though the charges are now in jeopardy because a lawyer for the alleged victim has indicated she may not want to pursue prosecution.

The potential end to that case offers an example of how an opaque and slow-moving international extradition system can derail justice, leaving suspects accused of serious crimes free when they find haven in foreign countries.

In the Jeyapaul case, Peterson said she was 14 and had just started high school when he came to her church sometime in fall 2004. “I met him very briefly,” she said.

Peterson said she would go to church in the mornings to pray, and Jeyapaul expressed interest in a book she was reading.

“I didn’t know him that well, but I trusted him with him being a priest,” she said. “The abuse happened quite fast.

“I (would) be surprised if there weren’t more people in India who were affected by his actions. I hope that justice will prevail, and we get him back to the United States and get him away from vulnerable kids.”

Chicago Tribune