John Praveen Kumar Itukulapati, a 38-year-old Roman Catholic priest from India, has been sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing a teenage girl in the US, Rapid City Journal reported.
John 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 in a matter occurring prior to September 2018.
John Praveen served at the Holy Spirit Father congregation in Telangana before he was deputed abroad as a part of an overseas assignment ten years ago in November 2007.
Initially deputed at the All Saints Church in Eagle Butte in South Dakota, he was shifted to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City in June as the Parochial Vicar.
According to the report, John Praveen admitted in a signed document to sexually touching the girl's breasts above her clothes without her consent for his sexual gratification, while in a basement classroom of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City.
Mark Vargo, Pennington County state's attorney said that John Praveen "solicited" the girl in a confession booth and while she tried to hide reached underneath her sweater to touch her above the leotard she was wearing.
Judge Robert Mandel at the Rapid City state court, dismissed the defence and prosecution’s request to award a maximum of one-year imprisonment and instead sentenced the priest to six years of incarceration.
The judge said that a one-year term was "not adequate" for John Praveen's crime. While noting that his job was to judge Praveen, not the Catholic Church, the judge said that he needs to take into account that the crime was worsened by the fact that Praveen abused his authority as a priest.
Following a joint investigation conducted by the Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, John Praveen was arrested last year on 2 October.
He was charged on two counts of Sexual Contact with a Child Under 16, a class 3 felony which carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison and/or a $30,000 fine on each count.
The cops arrested him based on an investigation after a juvenile victim came forward to report the incident. The investigation revealed that Praveen made sexual contact with the child on two separate occasions. Praveen has served as a temporary priest within the Rapid City area since early summer of 2018.
In an emailed statement, Rapid City Bishop Robert Gruss apologised 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,” Gruss said.
“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”.
Rapid City Journal quoted the victim’s mother as saying "We're deeply thankful for the outcome".
She said that the judge's understanding of the seriousness of the crime is "deeply healing" for 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 victim's mother wrote that Praveen solicited his daughter during the confession, a place that is supposed to be about trust and respect, and abused her after Mass while wearing his priestly garb.
In 2015, a Minnesota court convicted an Indian-origin priest, Joseph Jeyapaul, for sexually assaulting minors during his stint in the US. Jeyapaul served as a priest in Crookston city in Minnesota in 2004-05 and was arrested in India in 2012. He was extradited to the US on charges of sexual abuse and was convicted by the court.