Washington, Feb. 7: Rev. Father Francis Nelson is disproving the logic behind the proverb that setting a thief to catch a thief makes good sense.
The 39-year-old Catholic priest, who was earlier investigating sexual misconduct by his peers in the Kottor diocese in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, has now been found guilty of making a 12-year-old New York girl sit on his lap and then fondling her.
Father Nelson faces up to a year in prison, but is free till he is sentenced on March 25.
The case, which local newspapers are describing as a “priest’s lap attack”, is the first in which a Catholic cleric in New York is being sentenced following a change in policy at the Diocese of Brooklyn of giving prosecutors the names of priests accused of sexual misconduct in the past 20 years.
A jury deliberated for two days before giving a guilty verdict. Father Nelson denies the charges and says he is innocent.
Father Tharmarajan of Kottor diocese told The Telegraph over telephone that he could not believe that Father Nelson was convicted in New York. “He was a pious and popular priest who was liked by everybody when he was here. I do not know how he got into a case like this.”
Tharmarajan wanted to study the verdict before commenting on any possible action by the church against Father Nelson.
The incident occurred in May 1999, when the priest visited the home of the victim to bless her wheelchair-bound grandmother.
Tears running down her face, the victim, now 16, told the court 10 days ago that Father Nelson forced her down on his lap and “put his hand...under my bra and touched my breasts”.
He later telephoned her to suggest that “maybe one day I should come to see his room in the rectory”.
An altar girl at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church, she described feeling “scared”, “dirty” and “embarrassed”. The girl told her trusted teacher in school and the church, but not police.
The Brooklyn diocese to which the priest was attached asked him to leave. He was able to get a posting in a neighbouring archdiocese, where church officials say they were unaware of his past. But the victim said her family was misled about his whereabouts. “We were told he went back to India.”