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Minn. attorneys claim Vatican covering up alleged abuse by priest

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Attorney Jeff Anderson
Attorney Jeff Anderson is perhaps the best known attorney in the clergy sex abuse cases. He says the top hierarchy of the Catholic church should account for what he says was a coverup of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy for decades.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

For the second time in a week, a pair of St. Paul lawyers say evidence points back to Rome that Catholic church leaders have been protecting a priest accused of sexual misconduct with children. 

Last week the allegations were about a Wisconsin priest. This time they say the abuse happened in Minnesota, and that the priest is still working as a church school administrator in his native India.

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson released dozens of pages of documents Monday morning. He claims the documents are evidence that the bishop of Crookston had warned the Vatican that Father Joseph Jeyapaul had been accused of sexually assaulting two teenage girls in northern Minnesota.

The documents include two letters from Bishop Victor Balke to Cardinal William Levada, head of the church's Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. Levada succeeded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict in 2005.

"Cardinal Levada got the information that this priest was at risk of hurting other kids. And what did the Vatican do? They remained silent," Anderson said. "They kept it a secret, and simply gave instructions to the bishop overseeing Jeyapaul in India to 'monitor' him."

Anderson and his associate, Michael Finnegan, said Jeyapaul had fled the U.S. and was wanted on felony sexual assault charges stemming from one of the assaults. 

They also released letters and Internet postings indicating that Jeyapaul was helping run the church's schools in the Ootacamund diocese in southern India. They got the letters as part of a lawsuit against the Crookston diocese over the allegations against Jeyapaul.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI at the end of the Easter Mass in St. Peter's square, at the Vatican, Sunday, April 4, 2010.
AP photo

Finnegan said he deposed Crookston Bishop Victor Balke last year, and asked him at that time if he recalled anything about the response to his warnings from the Congregation of the Faith, the office that oversees Catholic priests.

"Bishop Balke's answer, under oath, was, 'I don't. I don't. I don't recall any response from the congregation. There may be, but I don't recall any,'" said Finnegan. 

Vatican officials, however, said in a statement Monday they'd recommended that Jeyapaul be defrocked, and that they would cooperate with his extradition.

Jeyapaul, the target of the allegations, was ordained a priest in India in 1982. He was sent to the U.S. in 2004 as what's called an extern, and served as priest in as many as four parishes in northern Minnesota. 

Church documents indicate he was to have served for three years. But a year after he arrived, Jeyapaul returned to India -- saying he needed to attend to his dying mother. 

Church documents said reports soon surfaced that Jeyapaul had had inappropriate contact with a 16-year-old parishioner. The Crookston diocese says he also missappropriated a substantial sum of church money and tried to sell a car that belonged to the church before he left.

Jeyapaul was supposed to return to finish out his three-year term, but did not.

Instead, in 2006, another young woman reported that the priest had raped her while serving her parish, Blessed Sacrament Church. Like the other victim, she had been considering becoming a nun, and was discussing her intentions with the priest when he allegedly assaulted her.

Roseau County authorities charged Jeyapaul with first-degree criminal sexual conduct in January 2007. It was about a year and a half after he'd left the country.

Roseau County attorney Lisa Hanson says her office has started extradition proceedings against Jeyapaul, to bring him back to Minnesota and face the charges.

"People who know are telling me that India isn't real good to respond to those things. So it isn't something that's going to happen this week or this month," said Hanson. 

She says it could take four or five years for the process to wind its way throught the U.S. Department of Justice and the government of India.

Church officials in southern India told the Associated Press in New Dehli Monday that they sent Jeyapaul to a monastery for a year of prayer. The bishop in Ootacamund says the diocese has no plans to take any further action against Jeyapaul.

The priest himself denied any wrongdoing in a phone interview with the AP, and said he'd been told by church officials not to come back to America, although the Crookston bishop said in a 2005 letter that he'd asked Jeyapaul to return and face the accusations against him.