Crookston Diocese settles sex abuse suit

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2011 - 8:35 PM

Crookston Diocese to pay $750K to woman who says priest raped her when she was 14.

The northwestern Minnesota diocese of Crookston has agreed to pay $750,000 to a woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted by her parish priest when she was 14 years old.

Megan Peterson, now 21, spoke publicly about her case for the first time at Tuesday's announcement of the settlement.

"I'm here today to speak my truth and protect other kids," said Peterson during a news conference at the St. Paul office of her attorney, Jeff Anderson. "It's been a struggle and a journey, this civil suit and going through the trauma."

Peterson said she was raped several times by the Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul, a priest from India who served at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Greenbush in 2004.

Jeyapaul is charged with two counts of criminal sexual conduct, but returned to India before charges were filed in 2006. He denies the allegations.

"The Diocese of Crookston regrets any harm that may have come to any person due to the actions of Fr. Jeyapaul, and the hardships the parishes have endured during this difficult time," the diocese said in a statement. "The Safe Environment program in the Diocese of Crookston mandates that every volunteer, employee or clergy who serves the Church is subject to a criminal background check and safe environment training."

As part of the settlement, the Diocese of Crookston website will link to Jeyapaul's photo and information about the alleged abuse. It will also publish his photo in parish bulletins. The Crookston bishop will notify the bishop of the Ootacamund Diocese in India about the settlement and express concern for Jeyapaul's suitability for priestly ministry.

Anderson said Jeyapaul remains in active ministry in Tamil Nadu, India, and works with children there.

County seeks extradition

Roseau County officials have requested Jeyapaul's extradition and are working with the Department of Justice to get him back to the United States. Initially, the priest said he would not return to face the charges, though he later said he would.

"We're basically just still waiting for the extradition request we put in," said Karen Foss, Roseau County attorney. "We have no idea what time we're looking at.

"We have requested the church's cooperation, and they have cooperated ... to try to get him back here," she said. "We're hoping with this ... civil settlement that they will get back on it and get some type of pressure in India to try and get him back into the country and face these charges."

Anderson said the Vatican has received at least two reports of abuse by Jeyapaul when he served in the Crookston Diocese: Peterson's case and a separate report involving another female minor. Criminal charges were not issued in that case, he said.

"The Vatican ignored those reports and chose secrecy over safety and allows to this day this priest to continue in ministry," Anderson said. "This alarms us."

In recent years, Anderson has filed at least two lawsuits against the Vatican, accusing Catholic leaders of fraud and not doing enough to stop clergy sex abuse in its ranks.

Woman tells her story

On Tuesday, a tearful Peterson recalled being raped repeatedly by Jeyapaul in his office and the confessional. A devout Catholic who aspired to become a nun, Peterson said she sought out Jeyapaul for guidance.

Peterson tried to report the abuse to the Diocese of Crookston, but "they hung up on her," Anderson said. Peterson later told a school counselor and it was reported to criminal authorities, he said.

In its statement, the diocese says it notified authorities after it received a complaint against Jeyapaul in August 2005 "alleging inappropriate behavior with a teenage girl." From the time the complaint was lodged, Jeyapaul was not allowed to work in the diocese.

Now an artist with plans to attend college, Peterson said she was suicidal for years but has sought therapy and "wants to live." Digital images of her paintings, some depicting graphic sexual acts, were shown on a screen while she recounted her story.

"I'm here to protect kids today, and I'm here as a part of my healing process also," Peterson said. "I want people to know they don't have to come forward with their names. But for me, I just want to take action and do the best I can to protect kids and let them know they're not alone."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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