After the Fall: 8,000 miles from justice

Target 8

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — Father Jacob Vellian is a revered religious scholar and author in his native India. He’s known for his singing voice and his knowledge of the Syriac language, which predates Christ.

In Michigan, almost 8,000 miles away, he is known as an accused pedophile priest.

But it’s unlikely he’ll ever face a judge, even though he was one of five Catholic priests charged in May 2019 with sexually abusing children in Michigan.

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office said it was told by the U.S. State Department that it could take 12 to 14 years to extradite him from India, where he’s living in a retirement home. He’s 85 years old.

A courtesy image of Jacob Vellian.

“Quite honestly, I would be shocked if they ever get him here before he dies because of his age,” said his alleged victim, Ann Phillips Browning of St. Joseph.

Vellian was a visiting priest in the Kalamazoo diocese from India in the 1970s when, his accuser says, he molested her at least a dozen times in the rectory at St. John the Evangelist in Benton Harbor. He was in his 30s at the time.

It started when his victim was 15, according to court records.

“He stole my innocence,” Browning said. “He stole my sexuality, he stole my self-worth. He stole, probably most important, is he stole my relationship with God.”

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The state Attorney General’s Office charged Vellian with two counts of first-degree sexual assault — rape — and vowed to extradite him from India. He could face up to life in prison.

“It felt so affirming to know that he’s going to be held accountable,” Browning said of the criminal charges. “It goes back to accountability. He was going to be held accountable, legally, even though he was in another country.”

It’s not clear why it would take so long to extradite him. The U.S. and India reached an extradition treaty in 1999.

To extradite on state charges, prosecutors must work with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs. The Department of Justice would forward the request to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, which would submit it to the India Ministry of External Affairs, where a judge must agree to extradite.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman refused to comment on Vellian’s case.

A similar case in Minnesota recently got international attention. Father Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, a priest from India, was accused of molesting two girls in 2004 and 2005 while assigned to a church in northern Minnesota.

In 2014, nearly eight years after Minnesota prosecutors filed criminal charges, the Indian government agreed to extradite the priest to the U.S.

After pleading guilty to a reduced charge in 2016, he got a year in jail and was returned to India, where he reportedly resumed working as a priest.

>>After the Fall: The legacies of Grand Rapids’ two most notorious priests

THE CLOCK STOPPED

In older cases involving other priests, the passage of time has barred the AG from filing charges, but the clock stopped on the statute of limitations in this case because Vellian left Michigan shortly after the alleged assaults.

Browning said she was looking forward to facing him in court.

“It would be so validating,” she said. “It would be difficult. It would not be easy, but it would be so validating to be able to face him and let him see me.”

An undated courtesy image of Ann.

Browning said she was 15 in 1973 when Vellian started grooming her with gifts: a cross necklace, a wooden rosary, holy cards, prayer books.

“He’d tell me that I was beautiful and I was smart, and I was wonderful, just filled my ego. I was an insecure little kid,” she said.

Soon, he started touching her in places he shouldn’t, she said. Then it went further, she said — always in his office at the church rectory where she volunteered as a receptionist.

The rectory next door to St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Benton Harbor. (Feb. 7, 2020)

Browning said she told her mother shortly after it started.

“She went, ‘Oh, honey, a priest would never do that.’ She goes, ‘You’re misunderstanding his touches.’

“So I just shut up and never spoke of it again,” she said.

Once, she said, the church’s lead pastor, Father LeRoy White, walked in on them.

An undated courtesy photo of Father LeRoy White.

“He jumped and he turned to me and he yelled at me, ‘What are you doing back here? You shouldn’t be back here,'” she recalled the lead pastor saying.

The priest who walked in on them later was accused, himself, of sexually assaulting a girl and of touching several women. The church found those allegations credible.

>>West Michigan dioceses refuse to release pedophile priests lists

THE ACCUSED PRIEST’S DENIAL: “COOKED UP”

In a letter, Vellian denied the allegations, calling them “cooked up.” He also denied it in a telephone interview with Target 8, saying he’d never molested any children.

He also said he didn’t know that the state had filed criminal charges against him.

After reporting it to the diocese in 2010, following years of therapy, his accuser started tracking Vellian online.

He worked in the 1990s as director of a secondary school for boys and girls in India. In San Jose, California, he started running a Catholic mission church in 2009. In May 2010, weeks after she filed her report, Vellian returned to India and retired.

But she said her research revealed he continued to work as a priest, even after the Kalamazoo bishop warned the archbishop in India.

Reports show he’s living in poor health in a retirement home in a village in southern India.

>>After the Fall: Priest abuse in Michigan

FEARING THE WORST

His accuser fears the worst: “that he’s continuing to molest and assault any vulnerable woman or probably girl,” she said.

As for his accuser, she’s returned to the Catholic church that she loves, after a long absence.

Ann Phillips Browning.

“I left the church for 20 years, and came back, but when I came back, it was very difficult for me to go to Mass,” she said. “It was very difficult for me to go to Mass if I didn’t personally know the priest. I might have a panic attack.

“It was not until probably the last year where my healing came to the point where I felt God was safe, and he really did love me.”

Browning, now 62, recently retired from the sociology department at Western Michigan University and is now a trauma therapist working with kids.

“When you’re damaged young, you can overcome that, but this side of heaven, you’re never completely free from damage,” she said.

Anyone who has been assaulted by a member of the Catholic church can confidentially report it to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office online or by calling 844.324.3374 during regular business hours. The state also has a hotline for all survivors of sexual assault that offers support and resources: 1.855.VOICES4 (864.2374). In Grand Rapids, the YWCA runs a free weekly support group for survivors of clergy abuse.

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