Lawsuit claims Knoxville diocese mishandled priest's sex assault of parishioner

The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, Tenn. The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, Tenn. | Nheyob via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Diocese of Knoxville allegedly mishandled a report that a priest sexually assaulted a parishioner who sought grief counseling in 2020, a lawsuit charges.

The lawsuit was filed against the Diocese of Knoxville and a Catholic priest on Jan. 31, 2022 in Sevier County Circuit Court in Tennessee. It seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney fees. The lawsuit alleges that the diocese’s actions inflicted emotional distress, and it was culpably negligent in hiring and supervising its employees.

According to the lawsuit, the alleged abuse was committed by Father Antony D. Punnackal. He was ordained a Carmelite priest in India, and later served in Vega, Texas before becoming pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He was suspended in January after a grand jury indicted him on one count of sexual battery and one count of sexual battery by an authority figure.

The lawsuit describes the alleged victim as a mother of three who had sought grief counseling from her parish church after the father of her third child was murdered.

“We will not be commenting on Father Punnackal until the matter is resolved in the civil legal system,” said Jim Wogan, spokesman for the Diocese of Knoxville, according to WVLT News. “He has been removed from active ministry.”

Punnackal, in his own court response, admits to being alone with the alleged victim for the counseling meeting but he denied allegations of assault, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. The lawsuit claims the priest confessed to the assault but charged that the diocese allowed him to remain in his position.

The plaintiff and alleged victim is an adult woman known only as “Jane Doe.” She was a parishioner at Punnackal’s church. She speaks Spanish and has “very limited English proficiency,” the lawsuit says. Doe had reached out to a bilingual assistant at the church, but the assistant still chose Punnackal to meet with her even though he does not speak Spanish.

On Feb. 17, 2020, when Doe arrived at the church for grief counseling, the priest allegedly locked her in a room and fondled her. Though she “rebuffed” the priest, the lawsuit says, “he continued his assault.” She escaped after the priest unlocked the doors.

Doe has said that the damage from the alleged assault led to her voluntarily giving temporary custody of her children to the government, and she is in the process of recovering custody. The alleged victim suffered significant mental distress and was hospitalized for depression in 2020 due to the damage of the assault, the lawsuits says.

She reported the assault to law enforcement in early March 2020. According to the complaint, law enforcement told the diocese about the woman’s report before the grand jury indictment, but the diocese did not take action against the priest until he was indicted.

In a court motion, the Knoxville diocese has asked for some language to be stricken from the complaint about another lawsuit in the diocese, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.

That lawsuit names the diocese and Bishop Richard Stika for allegedly mishandling claims that an assistant of Stika raped a musician working at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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