Fugitive priest

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)

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 authorities 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."