ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Roman Catholic priest was in his native India in 2007 when he was charged with sexually assaulting a teenage girl at his former post in Minnesota. Three years later, he is still serving as a priest in India with the blessing of his local bishop.
And the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul has no intention of returning to the U.S. to answer the charges.
His bishop said Jeyapaul handles paperwork for schools in the diocese office and does not work with children.
"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," said the Most Rev. A. Almaraj of the Diocese of Ootacamund in southern India. "He says he is innocent, and these are only allegations. ... I don't know what else to do."
The Vatican weighed in Monday, saying that officials there thought Jeyapaul should be removed from the priesthood and that they cooperated with efforts to extradite him to the U.S. – even providing authorities with his exact location in India.
But they said under church law, the decision of the priest's punishment was up to the local bishop in India. Almaraj held his own canonical trial and sentenced Jeyapaul to spend a year in a monastery.
Critics of the Catholic Church have seized on the case as another example of what they said is a practice of protecting child-molesting priests from the law.
Jeyapaul was one of many foreign priests brought to help fill shortages in U.S. 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.
Jeyapaul, 55, 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 there, Bishop Victor Balke of the Diocese of Crookston, Minn., said he received an anonymous letter accusing Jeyapaul of an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old girl. Balke investigated and e-mailed Jeyapaul with the allegations.
"You are no longer welcome here, and I will go to the police if you return," Balke wrote.
Jeyapaul wrote back to say he had been falsely accused but would stay in India.
Balke also notified 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.
"For my part, I cannot in good conscience allow this matter to be passed over because the cleric has left my territory," Balke wrote to Cardinal William Levada, then head of the office, in late 2005. "In my mind it would be a shameful betrayal towards the women and girls in India to whom Fr. Jeyapaul could at present pose a serious risk."
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."
No charges were ever filed in connection with the 16-year-old. But in November 2006, Balke wrote another letter to the Vatican, warning that Minnesota prosecutors were pursuing charges against Jeyapaul in connection with another girl – this one, 14 – and hoped to extradite him.
Charges involving the 14-year-old were brought in January 2007. Prosecutors said she 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 Associated Press. "I do not know that girl at all."
Lisa Hanson, the prosecutor in northern Minnesota's Roseau County, said her office has been working with the U.S. Justice Department to extradite Jeyapaul. She would not say when prosecutors began pressing for his return.
"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."
Officials at India's Foreign Ministry were not immediately available to discuss whether the U.S. asked for Jeyapaul's extradition.
The Vatican's U.S. attorney, Jeffrey Lena, said in a statement Monday that the church believed that the accusations against Jeyapaul "were serious enough to merit dismissal from the clerical state." But under canon law, Lena said, the Vatican leaves that decision to the local bishop.
Almaraj said the Vatican 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," the bishop said.
An attorney for the alleged victim in the Minnesota case, Jeff Anderson, demanded on Monday that Jeyapaul 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.
Nessman reported from New Delhi. Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report.