Complaint Details Allegations against Priest
By Julie Swidwa
May 31, 2019
A Catholic priest from India has been charged with raping a then 15-year-old parishioner when he was serving as a visiting priest in Benton Harbor more than 40 years ago.
According to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, the girl was a volunteer administrative assistant in the rectory at what was then St. John the Evangelist parish on Columbus Avenue, when the visiting priest allegedly began molesting her.
Fr. Jacob Vellian, 84, is charged with two counts of rape and faces any number of years, up to life in prison, if convicted. He is in Kerala, India, and will be extradited to Michigan to face charges in Berrien County Trial Court, according to the felony complaint.
Vellian is one of five priests who have been charged with a total of 21 counts of criminal sexual conduct following a long investigation by law enforcement from several counties in Michigan. The charges were announced last week by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel at a news conference in Lansing.
Vellian served as a visiting priest at St. John’s in 1973 and 1974. The church is overseen by the Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo.
According to charging documents obtained this week from the attorney general’s office, about a month after a 15-year-old female parishioner began volunteering at the rectory, Vellian allegedly began to compliment her, provide gifts, and rub her neck and shoulders.
The girl told police the conduct escalated, and on one occasion, she said he touched her breasts and told her he was praying for her and “trying to fill (her) soul with the Holy Spirit.” The molestation continued and escalated into rape, the complaint alleges.
The girl reported the alleged abuse to the Diocese of Kalamazoo in 2002 and, according to the charging documents, on one occasion in 1973 another priest walked into the room during one of the assaults. In 2010, the alleged victim again reported the abuse, this time to a deacon of the church. The deacon referred the matter to Benton Harbor police, who found the woman’s statements credible, the affidavit states. The Diocese of Kalamazoo conducted its own internal review and in 2010 found the report to be credible, it further states.
A spokeswoman at the diocese office said Friday she cannot answer the question of why it took so many years for the priest to be charged. She said that, because it is an open investigation, she could offer no further comment or answer questions. She referred The Herald Palladium to this written statement on the diocese website from May 24:
“The Diocese of Kalamazoo learned today that a former visiting priest from the Archeparchy of Kottayum, India, of the Syro-Malabar Church, who served in the diocese in the early 1970s for one year, was charged by the Michigan Attorney General. We have fully cooperated with this ongoing investigation and will continue to do so. We encourage anyone with information related to misconduct to call the Attorney General’s reporting number at 844-324-3374. As a church, we continue to unite in our prayers for all survivors. We remain steadfast in our commitment to promote greater protection and safeguards of all people.”
The website also provides a link with instructions on how to report sexual misconduct by clergy by calling the Diocese of Kalamazoo’s Sexual Misconduct Question and Reporting Line, 877-802-0115. It states that all calls regarding sexual misconduct will be returned, usually within one hour.
The diocese website can be found at www.dioceseofkalamazoo.org.
Attorney General Nessel called last week’s announcement about sexual abuse by clergy “Just the tip of the iceberg.”