KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A woman who accused a visiting Catholic priest of sexually assaulting her in Southwest Michigan when she was a teenager was hoping someday to face him in court, even though he had moved back to his native India.
Just last week, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, which had filed rape charges against Father Jacob Vellian, said it was still working to extradite him.
What the AG’s office didn’t know, until learning it from the victim, was that Vellian died almost a year ago, nearly 8,000 miles away.
“They’re honoring him, they’re kissing his casket, they’re laying flowers at his feet, they’re wearing badges with his picture,” Ann Phillips Browning said while watching a video posted to YouTube of Vellian’s funeral service in India.
The video is clearly labeled as Vellian’s funeral service. His photograph is in a corner of the video. His face is visible through glass that covers his casket. He’s dressed in clerical garb and is holding a chalice.
Phillips Browning was searching her accused rapist’s name on YouTube last weekend when she discovered the video.
“It was hard not to throw up. I was nauseated,” she said.
“I wonder how many of these people know? How many of these people know what he was really like?” she said, watching mourners surrounding his casket. “I’ve got to believe there’s some.”
She had no idea that he had died in December 2022, at the age of 88, and neither did the Michigan Attorney General’s Office that was working to extradite him.
“I was stunned. I can’t believe no one else knew this,” she said.
“Obviously, it’s a low priority, and obviously they (AG officials) don’t keep tabs on these people,” she said.
Vellian was a revered religious scholar and author in his native India, known for his singing voice and his knowledge of the Syriac language, which predates Christ.
He was a visiting priest in the Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo in the 1970s when, his accuser said, 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. She was 15 when it started, according to court records. She said it started with gifts and compliments, then shoulder massages, before leading to inappropriate touching.
“Eventually, he just flat out started molesting me to the point where it was rape,” she said.
She said she told her mom.
“She said, ‘Oh, honey, you misunderstood, a priest would never do that.'”
“When it was happening, I’d go to mass on Sundays and I’d see his hands holding the host, which was Jesus, and that always left an impression with me, like how can he do that knowing where those hands have been?” Phillips Browning said.
She said a priest walked in on them once. That priest was later credibly accused of sexual assault.
The state AG’s Office charged Vellian in 2019 with two counts of first-degree sexual assault — rape.
“It felt so good to be seen, to be heard and to be validated,” Phillips Browning said.
Vellian denied the allegations in a phone conversation with Target 8 in 2020.
At the time, 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.
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 forwards the request to the U.S. Embassy in New Dehli, India, which submits it to the India Ministry of External Affairs, where a judge must agree to extradite. It’s not clear how far it got.
“I knew there was a decent chance he could die before he got back here,” Phillips Browning said.
While she praises the church for taking steps to prevent sexual abuse, she questions how it handles accused priests and their victims. She accuses the church of helping to keep him from facing the charges, allowing him to retire to India.
“I was hoping he would be defrocked, so he could no longer appear as a priest, he could no longer wear clerical garb,” she said. “Actually nothing happened.”
She says she sent a link of the funeral video to the AG’s office, along with an email:
“It is not only disappointing, it feels very dismissive to not be able to see any justice done, not from your office or not from my church,” she wrote.
The AG’s victim advocate responded to her with an apology: “I cannot imagine what this must have been like for you to find out this way. I so wish we could have been the ones to tell you. We just had no idea.”
In an email on Thursday to Target 8, AG spokesman Danny Wimmer said the office has “only very recently learned of the purported death of Jacob Vellian and we are in the process of confirming the matter. At this point we cannot provide comment.”
Kalamazoo diocese spokeswoman Victoria Cessna refused to comment Thursday.
“We don’t have any information to provide at this time,” she said in an email.
Now, Phillips Browning said, her only chance for justice is in the afterlife.
“If he’s not repented, I believe he’s going to hell,” she said. “What he did was pure evil. It destroyed me. It destroyed my faith, it destroyed my emotional well-being. It’s a very serious, serious thing that he did, and he’s going to answer for that at some point, and that’s what I have to hang onto.”
Anyone who has been victimized 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 victims of sexual assault that offers support and resources: 1.855.VOICES4 (864.2374).