Ex-priest on the run
Cleric fled to India after he was accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl
Ex-priest Sleeva Raju Policetti (left) worked at the Infant Jesus Church in India after he fled there to avoid sexual assault charges in Chicago. (Handout photo; Rakesh Sahai/ICIJ)
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.