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Priest in India accused of abuse says he won’t fight extradition to US

When prosecutors will bring him back is unclear

The Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul denies the accusations and says they are an attempt to get money from the church. The Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul denies the accusations and says they are an attempt to get money from the church.
By Ravi Nessman and Patrick Condon
Associated Press / April 7, 2010

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MINNEAPOLIS — A Roman Catholic priest charged with sexually assaulting a teenage parishioner in Minnesota said yesterday that he would willingly leave his native India and try to clear his name in the courts if the United States tried to extradite him.

The Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, 55, has never faced the criminal charges in the United States. The bishop who oversees him has said that he overruled a Vatican recommendation that Jeyapaul be removed from the priesthood and applied his own lesser punishment instead.

“I am ready to go because I am innocent. I am ready to prove I did not do any wrong,’’ said Jeyapaul, who works in the diocese’s office, handling paperwork for schools.

When the United States may try to bring Jeyapaul back isn’t clear. Lisa Hanson, the prosecutor in northern Minnesota’s Roseau County, said her office has been working with the US Justice Department to extradite him. But Hanson has refused to provide details of her efforts, and authorities haven’t explained why he hasn’t been brought back.

“He’s charged with serious felonies here in this country,’’ Hanson said yesterday. “We want justice for the victim here, and we want to do whatever we can to protect potential future victims everywhere.’’

Jeyapaul came to Minnesota in 2004 and was assigned to work at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Greenbush, a town of fewer than 1,000 people just south of the Canadian border. In 2005, he went to India to visit his ailing mother.

While he was in India, he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old girl in Minnesota, and Bishop Victor Balke of the Diocese of Crookston, Minn., told Jeyapaul not to come back or he would go to the police, according to an e-mail sent by Balke and provided by a victim’s lawyer.

Jeyapaul was later charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old female parishioner.

Balke also sent letters describing the allegations to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the top office in the Vatican that was formerly headed by Pope Benedict XVI and handles all abuse cases involving priests.

In the case of the 16-year-old, Jeyapaul gained access in part by encouraging her interest in becoming a nun, Balke wrote in one letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He even met with the girl’s parents to discuss the possibility, the letter said.

The Vatican said officials thought Jeyapaul should be removed from the priesthood, but under church law, the decision was up to the local bishop in India.

The Most Rev. A. Almaraj held his own canonical trial and sentenced Jeyapaul to a year in a monastery.

In a May 2006 letter, a Vatican official said Jeyapaul’s bishop in India had been instructed to monitor him “so that he does not constitute a risk to minors and does not create scandal.’’ Vatican officials said they cooperated with efforts to extradite him to the United States — even providing authorities with his exact location in India.

“Unless guilt is proved, we cannot take any strong action,’’ said the Most Rev. A. Almaraj of the Diocese of Ootacamund in southern India.

Almaraj had said previously that there had been no discussion of Jeyapaul returning to the United States to face the charges, but he said yesterday that in light of the very public criticism of the case that he should go back.

“It is his duty to prove his innocence,’’ he said.

The revelations about how the case was handled came a day after critics of the Catholic Church highlighted Jeyapaul’s case as another example of what they said is a practice of protecting abusive priests from the law.

Jeyapaul, who has denied the accusations and says they were an attempt to get money from the church, was one of many foreign priests brought to help fill shortages in US parishes. Last year, about one-quarter of the newly ordained priests in the United States were foreign-born, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

In a separate case, a church official confirmed yesterday that a priest convicted of fondling a 12-year-old altar girl in New York more than a decade ago had returned home to India, where he still served as a priest.

The Rev. Francis X. Nelson was sentenced to four months in prison in 2003 in connection with his role as a visiting priest at a church in Brooklyn. His victim testified that Nelson showed up at her grandmother’s apartment uninvited and groped her.

In a telephone call with the Associated Press yesterday, Nelson denied he was the priest who had served in New York and hung up.

However, his bishop, the Most Rev. Peter Remigius, confirmed that Nelson had returned to India after serving his jail sentence and continued to work as a priest in the bishop’s office in his home diocese of Kottar in southern India.

“His conviction was finished, and he has finished his term,’’ Remigius said. “He is not in charge of any parish . . . he is helping people who are alcoholic.’’

Remigius said Nelson had returned to Kottar when he took over as bishop in 2007. He was not aware of any correspondence between the Vatican and his predecessor, the Most Rev. Leon A. Tharmaraj, regarding whether Nelson should be removed from the priesthood following his conviction. Tharmaraj died in 2007.