MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A Roman Catholic priest charged with sexually assaulting a teenage parishioner in Minnesota said Tuesday 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 that might happen was unclear. Lisa Hanson, the prosecutor in northern Minnesota's Roseau County, has refused to provide details of her efforts or explain why Jeyapaul hadn't yet been brought back. Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the agency doesn't comment on extradition matters.
"We want justice for the victim here and we want to do whatever we can to protect potential future victims everywhere," Hanson said Monday.
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 attorney. 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 spend 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 U.S. - 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 Tuesday 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 New York Times quoted Jeyapaul on Tuesday as saying he was unaware of criminal charges against him in Minnesota. However, in a series of interviews Monday with The Associated Press, both Jeyapaul and Almaraj indicated they knew the priest was wanted on charges in the U.S. and had no intention of complying.
Balke also wrote Jeyapaul a letter in 2007 on Diocese of Crookston letterhead urging him to return and face the accusations. "I have asked you repeatedly to return to the United States and present yourself to the authorities who are investigating these matters," Balke wrote.
In addition, in a November 2005 letter to Monsignor A. Antony Samy, administrator for the Diocese of Ootacamund, Balke had warned of the possibility that Jeyapaul could be charged criminally in the U.S. "In the interest of justice I ask you to urge Fr. Jeyapaul to present himself to authorities and to cooperate fully in whatever process ensues," Balke wrote.
Balke retired from his Crookston post in 2007, and could not be located for comment. Monsignor David Baumgartner, current vicar general for the diocese, did not return several phone messages Tuesday.
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 child-molesting priests from the law.
Sex abuse allegations, as well as accusations of cover-ups by diocesan bishops and Vatican officials, have swept across Europe in recent weeks. Pope Benedict XVI has been criticized for not halting the actions of abusive priests when he was a Vatican cardinal and earlier while he was the archbishop of Munich in his native Germany. The Vatican has denounced such accusations and has blamed the media for what it calls a smear campaign against the pope and his advisers.
Jeyapaul, who has denied the accusations and claims they were an attempt to get money from the church, 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.
In a separate case, a church official confirmed Tuesday 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 on Tuesday, Nelson denied he was the same 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 term and continued to work as a priest in the bishop's office in his home diocese of Kottar in southern India. Remigius said Nelson had already returned to Kottar when he took over as bishop in 2007.
"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."