Rapid City, March 31, 2019: A former Catholic priest from India has been sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing a teenage girl in the US.
John Praveen Itukulapati, a former Holy Spirit priest from Telangana, pleaded guilty in February to sexually touching a 13-year-old girl in the Rapid City church, South Dakota, over her clothes in 2018, Rapid City Journal newspaper reported.
A judge overruled the requests of the defence lawyer and prosecutor when he sentenced Praveen to six years in prison Friday for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl inside a Rapid City church last fall.
What the lawyers asked for is “not adequate” for Praveen’s crime, Judge Robert Mandel said at the Rapid City state court.
Mandel said his job was to judge Praveen, not the Catholic Church, but he must take into account that the crime was worsened by the fact that Praveen abused his authority as a priest.
He sentenced Praveen, 38, to six years in prison, minus 178 days of time served, and said Praveen would be eligible for parole after three years. Mandel said if Praveen is granted parole, the parole board could ask Homeland Security to immediately deport him to Hyderabad, India, or have him first serve parole in any state.
We’re “deeply thankful for the outcome,” the victim’s mother said in a phone call after the sentencing. She said the judge’s understanding of the seriousness of the crime is “deeply healing” to her daughter and the family is extremely pleased with the “very sensitive and caring” way the police and Pennington County State’s Attorney Office handled the case.
The sentencing came after Praveen pleaded guilty to one count of having sexual contact with a child under the age of 16, a crime that carries a maximum 15-year punishment. As part of the plea deal, the prosecution dropped another charge that allegedly occurred earlier in September 2018.
Praveen admitted in a signed document to touching the girl’s breasts above her clothes without her consent for sexual gratification, while in a basement classroom of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City. Vargo said Praveen “solicited” the girl in a confession booth, found her as she tried to hide, and reached underneath her sweater to touch her above the leotard she was wearing.
I “send my sincere apologies to the family and the victim about what I have done,” Praveen said through tears in court on March 29. He said he knows saying sorry isn’t enough, and that he wishes he could take back what he did. He promised to never hurt anyone again.
Praveen joined the Diocese of Rapid City for a 10-year assignment in December 2017 and first worked in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe reservation. In June 2018, Praveen was transferred to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and worked there until he was arrested and charged Oct. 2, 2018.
The victim’s mother — through a letter read by Kelsey Weber, a deputy state’s attorney — described the psychological, social and spiritual damage Praveen caused to the victim, her family and the wider Catholic community. The Rapid City Diocese’s response to the incident was also criticized by many.
“It’s difficult to explain the damage done to the mind and future potential of our daughter, ir-erasable memories and life-long effects that the choices of John Praveen have caused,” the mother wrote. “His actions have affected her views of her personal value, her personal voice and how men value her. When she says no, should anyone listen?
In an emailed statement, Rapid City Bishop Robert Gruss apologized to the victim and her family on behalf of the Diocese of Rapid City, calling Praveen’s actions “sinful,” traumatic and a betrayal.
“I am deeply sorry that they had to experience these sinful actions at the hands of a priest,” Bishop Gruss wrote. “The pain and suffering of this family have been great. Only those who have been victims of abuse of any kind can understand the trauma. The experience of betrayal is great. Crimes of sexual abuse can never be tolerated, most especially among priests.”
She wrote that her older daughter has decided to completely leave the Catholic Church while her son feels guilt for being unable to stop Praveen. The family has been isolated by other relatives who don’t understand how they are trying to maintain faith after the incident.
Praveen’s abuse also harmed the credibility of the Church and all priests, and “other victims who have never seen any justice but read about yet another case in the paper,” the mother wrote.
In his statement, Bishop Gruss said the Diocese of Rapid City cooperated with civil authorities throughout the case.
All U.S. priests convicted of sex crimes are sent to intensive treatment after serving their sentence, the bishop said in a previous email. After treatment, they are either suspended or laicized, what many people refer to as “defrocked.”
A suspension means a priest can no longer wear clerical attire, has no priestly duties, and lives a life of prayer and penance under the supervision of a bishop. Laicization is a process conducted by the Vatican and means while technically still a priest, the priest lives his life as a lay person.
An email to the archbishop of Hyderabad asking if Praveen will receive treatment and what role he will serve was not returned. But Murphy said a representative from Praveen’s order said they plan to expel him when he returns to India.
Murphy said both sides are “baffled” by the response of the church community and hierarchy. He accused priests of using Praveen as a “pawn in their public relations game” when they invited a Washington Post reporter to tag along as they visited Praveen in jail, without the prior consent of Praveen. The visit was described in a positive, front-page Washington Post story about how a priest and his congregation were dealing with Praveen’s arrest within the context of the global Catholic child sex abuse crisis.
“The diocese will remain vigilant and transparent in fulfilling its policies and procedures regarding reported sexual misconduct. We must also never lose sight of those victim-survivors who have suffered because people in positions of power and authority have failed to act as the Gospel demands,” Bishop Gruss’ statement says.