Ex-priest on the Run
By David Jackson and Gary Marx
March 10, 2012
|Then-priest Sleeva Raju Policetti as he appeared in a Chicago archdiocese photo before his flight to India in 2002. (Archdiocese of Chicago / February 22, 2012)
Accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl, the Rev. Sleeva Raju Policetti fled nearly a decade ago to his native India, where the Roman Catholic archbishop of Hyderabad soon issued an order barring him from ministry.
In 2008, after a canonical trial, the Vatican took the rare and severe step of defrocking Policetti over the allegations, meaning he is no longer a priest.
But civil justice never caught up to the fugitive ex-priest, whose lawyers in India have fought efforts to extradite him to Chicago to face 20 felony counts of criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
And now it's apparently too late.
In recent days, Policetti's case took a dramatic turn when an attorney for Policetti's alleged victim indicated to Cook County prosecutors that she was no longer willing to pursue charges — a decision that would effectively force prosecutors to dismiss the case and abandon the years-long extradition effort.
Prosecutors are now trying to set up a face-to-face meeting with the alleged victim, said Sally Daly, spokeswoman for the Cook County state's attorney's office. "Proving up this case would very much involve us having the victim willing to participate in the prosecution," Daly said. "Obviously, things have changed; she's an adult now. We respect the wishes of the victim, same as you. At the end of the day, that's what matters most."
The potential end to Policetti's prosecution offers yet another example of how an opaque and slow-moving international extradition system can derail justice, leaving suspects accused of murder, rape and crimes against children free when they find haven in foreign countries.
Policetti's alleged victim initially worked with authorities, setting in motion an international extradition that required the approval of top officials from the U.S. State and Justice departments and India's Ministry of External Affairs.
But years into the grinding legal process, her attorney said, she wants to put the matter behind her. Her contact with the state's attorney came after the woman and her attorney learned the Tribune was preparing an article about Policetti.
Similar years-long delays have undermined other international fugitive manhunts, the Tribune found in an examination of more than 100 cases from the Chicago area and thousands of others nationwide. In some instances, witnesses died or disappeared, making the cases impossible to prosecute.
Policetti is one of at least 32 Roman Catholic priests nationwide since 1985 who have absconded to foreign countries while facing criminal charges or investigations for allegedly sexually assaulting or abusing youths in the United States, according to a Tribune review of federal warrants, news reports and law enforcement sources. Only five of them have been returned to the U.S. to face trial.
More than two dozen other Catholic clergy went abroad while facing internal church inquiries or civil allegations of child sex misconduct, or were transferred to foreign countries by church authorities, the Tribune found.
Confidential ecclesiastic records on Policetti's case, which broke in 2002, provide a rare glimpse into the actions of top-level officials of the Catholic Church regarding an accused priest just as the Vatican was becoming engulfed in a burgeoning scandal over pedophile priests around the world.
Though the Tribune found that an initial two-day delay by the church in reporting the child sex assault allegation may have given Policetti time to plan his escape from Chicago, records also show that top church officials here and in India pressed hard for Policetti's return and expressed fury at his alleged crimes and his continued ability to evade justice.
Told of the recent developments in the case, Chicago Archdiocese legal services director John O'Malley said, "From the outset, the archdiocese has supported and cooperated with the state's efforts to bring this case to a just resolution. The archdiocese and those of us involved in dealing with these tragic matters would never presume to make a judgment about the feelings of someone who has been sexually abused."
The archdiocese reached an out-of-court settlement with Policetti's alleged victim, a person with knowledge of the case confirmed. The church declined to disclose any details out of respect for the alleged victim's privacy. The alleged victim declined to comment for this article.
Her attorney, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said the Tribune account of the case was "inaccurate and irresponsible," although he would not identify any specific errors.
St. Tarcissus, the vibrant Northwest Side parish where Policetti had worked, saw a sharp drop in attendance and donations when the assault allegations first made news.
"The lives of a lot of parishioners were turned upside down," said the retired Rev. Daniel McCarthy, who was pastor when Policetti fled. "People were hurt and disillusioned and betrayed."
Prosecutors say Policetti was 42 and the girl had just turned 16 when the alleged assaults began. Policetti gave the girl jewelry and other gifts "to further his abusive sexual relationship with her," according to a Cook County prosecutor's court affidavit made public in New Delhi. The alleged victim "felt that she could not refuse the advances of Fr. Policetti because he was a priest."
In the court records and a brief interview earlier this year in India, Policetti proclaimed his innocence and said he is the victim of a racist conspiracy.
"Because of the allegations and case against me, I lost my permanent job at the church in Hyderabad and get only temporary jobs, sometimes on weekends," Policetti said from his lawyer's chamber in the stately Patiala House Courts Complex in New Delhi.
Despite being barred from public ministry, then defrocked, Policetti has continued to use the title of "Reverend." As recently as 2010, he sent Chicago parishioners richly decorated greeting cards soliciting donations, saying he ran an orphanage and school near Hyderabad.
Priests sometimes call him to fill in at church functions, Policetti said in the interview.
"Gradually people have ... forgotten the case, but the sense of frustration about what has happened with me has yet not left me," Policetti said. "It is only God's blessings and the strength my family and lawyers have given that have kept me going."
Like many other international fugitives traced by the Tribune, priests accused of sexual misconduct often returned to their hometowns and did little to conceal their identities or whereabouts, the newspaper found. Until the pedophile-priests scandal erupted a decade ago, many of them were given church housing and jobs after fleeing, and that still occurs in some cases.
Another priest who fled to his native India, the Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul, left the U.S. in 2005 just before he was charged in Minnesota with sexually assaulting 14-year-old Megan Peterson after she sought his advice about becoming a nun. Jeyapaul asserted his innocence and continued to work as a priest in India, where he was prohibited from direct contact with children.
Peterson, who is now 22, told the Tribune that authorities have advised her that Jeyapaul's extradition from India "could probably take 10 years, or maybe it won't even happen."
It has been difficult to carry on with her life with the case unresolved, Peterson added, but she is determined to bring Jeyapaul to trial because she fears he could abuse other youths.
"To see a predator still on the loose, to have used every resource you've got to get him back and to know they're just untouchable — that feeling is gut-wrenching," Peterson said.
A stocky and energetic associate pastor known at St. Tarcissus for his thundering homilies and attention to the sick, "Father Raju" Policetti came to Chicago in 1996 as an "extern" priest who would serve in America but remain accountable to church authorities in his home diocese in Hyderabad.
During the time of the alleged abuse, which started in 2001, a church secretary noticed Policetti with the girl in his private rectory bedroom "on numerous occasions with the door closed," according to a Chicago police detective's affidavit. The secretary "counseled Sleeva that this was considered inappropriate behavior, but he dismissed her warning," the detective wrote.
During this period, Policetti applied to remain in Chicago as a priest of the Chicago diocese. Chicago rejected his application early in 2002 because he had come under church investigation for allegedly improperly raising donations to support an orphanage and school in India, church records and interviews show. Church authorities questioned where the money was going.
On a Saturday morning in May 2002, two months before Policetti's scheduled July 14 departure, a parish member brought then-pastor McCarthy letters exchanged between Policetti's alleged victim and another girl that disclosed the priest's alleged misconduct, according to court records and interviews.
A stunned McCarthy immediately conveyed the letters to the Rev. Larry McBrady, then the Chicago vicar for priests. At some point over the weekend, McBrady spoke with Kathleen Leggdas, who headed the archdiocese office that investigated abuse allegations against priests.
Church officials say they kept their communications completely private. "I didn't want to scare him off," McCarthy recalled.
Archdiocese policy required prompt reporting of child abuse allegations to the state Department of Children and Family Services hotline. Records show Leggdas' call came around noon Monday, May 6, just over two days after the letters surfaced.
During that 50-hour window, Policetti sold his car for $3,500, telling the buyer "he was ill and had to return to India," according to a Chicago police detective's court affidavit.
Policetti caught a flight out of the U.S. on Tuesday, about two hours before police scrambled to O'Hare International Airport to catch him. Church authorities would not comment directly on the delay.
Police quickly contacted Policetti's brother, the Rev. Prasad Rao Policetti, who was then posted at nearby St. Monica Parish. But Prasad was "deceitful and evasive," telling police that his brother flew to Amsterdam even though he knew Sleeva Policetti was headed to India, the detective's court affidavit states.
Prasad Policetti would not answer police questions about the brothers' various bank accounts. And he phoned a St. Tarcissus secretary and urged her to persuade the alleged victim to "change her story" and say she and Sleeva Policetti were "just kissing," according to the affidavit.
The Tribune's efforts to locate Prasad Policetti, who left Chicago for Hyderabad four days after his brother, were unsuccessful.
After Sleeva Policetti arrived in India, he called the Chicago detective and admitted "kissing and touching" the "young girl" but denied sexual relations, according to court records.
Sleeva Policetti said "he was uncertain about when he would return to Chicago," Detective Richard Lapinski wrote in a court affidavit. "He stated he could be contacted at the Bishop's House in Hyderabad and provided a phone number."
Cardinal Francis George had immediately alerted then-Hyderabad Archbishop Marampudi Joji about the allegations against Policetti. "Father Policetti must meet with the police," the cardinal wrote in a faxed letter. "Given the grave nature of this criminal allegation, I ask that ... you direct him to return to Chicago immediately."
When Policetti arrived in Hyderabad at 10 a.m. Thursday, May 9, he went straight to Joji's house and strenuously maintained his innocence, church records show.
Four days later, George faxed Joji another letter warning him that Policetti had raised "considerable sums of money" by telling parishioners "he was opening a school in Hyderabad. He may suddenly disappear again and use such monies, including $30,000 in a Bank of South India account, for his personal support."
Joji faxed George an "urgent" reply saying he had persuaded Policetti to return to Chicago. Policetti wrote separately to assure George he was heading back to Chicago "at the earliest" to "tell you my version of what had happened."
More than a week passed. When Joji finally summoned Policetti, his brother Prasad appeared instead and told Joji "definitively" that Sleeva Policetti "will not be returning to Chicago," church records show.
Joji then took the most drastic step in his power. He notified Sleeva Policetti in a letter that he was barred "from officiating or participating in public or private as a priest," citing his "deceptive claims of innocence."
Yet roughly a year later, Policetti wrote to a St. Tarcissus parishioner and encouraged her to support a child she had sponsored through him at an orphanage. As he would do in extradition court filings and fundraising appeals over the following years, Policetti described himself as a priest in good standing: "Regarding my ministry, I will be posted soon in the parish ... as a pastor," he wrote.
Chicago archdiocese officials sent a copy of that fundraising appeal to Joji, asking in alarm whether Policetti was indeed about to be posted as a pastor.
A month later, in May 2003, India police arrested Policetti outside Hyderabad.
As India began the process of extraditing him to the U.S. to face trial, Policetti was held in judicial custody for about two weeks, then released on bail, court records show. He has been free since then.
Jackson and Marx are Tribune reporters. Ritu Sarin, a reporter for the Indian Express, is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center for Public Integrity. Her work on this story from India was funded by a grant to ICIJ from The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.