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.
Meanwhile, the bishop who oversees the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul said he had overruled a Vatican recommendation that the accused priest be removed from the priesthood and applied his own lesser punishment.
“Unless guilt is proved, we cannot take any strong action,” said the Most Rev. A. Almaraj of the Diocese of Ootacamund in southern India.
Critics of the Catholic Church highlighted Jeyapaul’s case as an example of what they said is a practice of protecting child-molesting priests from the law.
Jeyapaul, who denied the accusations, was one of many foreign priests brought to help fill shortages in US parishes.
On Monday, Almaraj said there had been no discussion of Jeyapaul returning to the US, but he said Tuesday that in light of the very public criticism of the case he should go back.
The Rev. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, stressed that the church would ask Jeyapaul to face the courts in the US if an extradition request was made. Jeyapaul, who continues to work in the diocese office, said he would not put up a fight if the US tried to extradite him. “I am ready to go because I am innocent. I am ready to prove I did not do any wrong,” he said.
Jeyapaul, 55, came to Minnesota in 2004 and was assigned to work at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Greenbush. 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, and Bishop Victor Balke of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, told Jeyapaul not to come back or he would go to the police. Jeyapaul was later charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old parishioner.
Balke also notified the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the top office in the Vatican that handles all abuse cases involving priests.
The Vatican said officials thought Jeyapaul should be removed from the priesthood. Almaraj held his own canonical trial and sentenced Jeyapaul to spend a year in a monastery.
“He didn’t want to leave the priesthood, so then we took this administrative process... He is accused. If it is proved he is guilty, then the necessary action will be taken with the guidelines from the Vatican,” Almaraj said.
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 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.