A Roman Catholic priest charged with sexually assaulting a teenage parishioner in Minnesota has said 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 US. The bishop who oversees him has said 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," Jeyapaul, who works in the diocese's office handling paperwork for schools, said.
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 had not yet been brought back.
"We want justice for the victim here and we want to do whatever we can to protect potential future victims everywhere," she said.
Jeyapaul arrived in 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, Minnesota, told Jeyapaul not to come back or he would go to the police, according to an email sent by the bishop and provided by a victim's lawyer. Jeyapaul was later charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old female parishioner.
Bishop Balke also sent letters describing the allegations to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the top office in the Vatican which 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, the bishop wrote in one letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He even met 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, of the Diocese of Ootacamund in southern India, 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 co-operated with efforts to extradite him to the US - even providing authorities with his exact location in India.
"Unless guilt is proved, we cannot take any strong action," Mr Almaraj said.
Mr Almaraj had said previously that there had been no discussion of Jeyapaul returning to the United States to face the charges, but he said yesterday that, in light of the very public criticism of the case, he should go back.
"It is his duty to prove his innocence," he said.
The New York Times quoted Jeyapaul yesterday as saying he was unaware of criminal charges against him in Minnesota. However, in a series of interviews on Monday with The Associated Press, both Jeyapaul and Mr Almaraj indicated that they knew the priest was wanted on charges in the US and had no intention of complying.
Bishop Balke also wrote Jeyapaul a letter in 2007 on Diocese of Crookston headed paper 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," he wrote.
In addition, in a November 2005 letter to Monsignor A Antony Samy, administrator for the Diocese of Ootacamund, Bishop Balke had warned of the possibility that Jeyapaul could be charged criminally in the US.
"In the interest of justice I ask you to urge Fr Jeyapaul to present himself to authorities and to co-operate fully in whatever process ensues," the bishop wrote.
Bishop Balke retired from his Crookston post in 2007, and was not available for comment. Monsignor David Baumgartner, current vicar general for the diocese, could also not be contacted.
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 criticised 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 US parishes. Last year, about a quarter of the newly ordained priests in the United States were foreign-born, according to the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
In a separate case, a church official confirmed yesterday 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 turned up at her grandmother's apartment uninvited and groped her.
In a telephone call with The Associated Press yesterday, 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. Mr 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," he said. "He is not in charge of any parish... he is helping people who are alcoholic."