Knoxville Catholic diocese, Gatlinburg Catholic priest sued over sexual assault allegations

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

April 21, 2022

By Liam Adams

A Sevier County lawsuit alleges the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville mishandled a report about a priest sexually assaulting a parishioner two years ago.

Father Antony D. Punnackal, the priest who is also a defendant in the suit, is on suspension from his role as pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg after a grand jury indicted him in January on charges related to the same incident. 

The lawsuit is the third ongoing civil case in the state against the Catholic Church for abuse related incidents. The other two are against the Knoxville diocese and the Diocese of Nashville for incidents in Knoxville and Murfreesboro, respectively. 

Plaintiffs in all three cases are unnamed. 

A spokesperson for the diocese declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit.

“It would be inappropriate for the diocese to comment on allegations raised in an ongoing civil lawsuit,” spokesperson Jim Wogan said. 

Second lawsuit against Knoxville diocese:Knoxville Catholic diocese accused of improper sexual abuse investigation, lawsuit alleges

Lawsuit against Nashville diocese:Judge sentences former Catholic Sunday school teacher for abuse at Murfreesboro parish

The complaint against Punnackal states the priest locked the adult female plaintiff in a room on Feb. 17, 2020 and “fondled her breasts and buttocks.” 

The woman “rebuffed Punnackal but he continued his assault,” said the complaint.  Punnackal eventually unlocked the door and the woman escaped, according to the complaint filed in early March and sealed until only recently.

The plaintiff, a mother of three, was meeting with Punnackal that day for grief counseling after the father of the woman’s third child was killed. Punnackal admitted in his own court response to being alone with the woman on that day for a grief counseling meeting, but denied any allegations of assault.

The woman later reported the incident to law enforcement, triggering an investigation and the subsequent grand jury indictment. The grand jury indicted Punnackal on one count of sexual battery and one count of sexual battery by an authority figure, according to records included with the lawsuit. 

The grand jury indicted the priest on the same day he was at an event with Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika — a fact Punnackal acknowledged in his response — who has previously spoken highly of Punnackal.

“Antony opened his heart to have a true missionary experience, to listen to the Lord, and to follow,” Stika said in a 2017 article commemorating Punnackal’s 25th year in the priesthood. The diocesan published article said Punnackal moved to Tennessee from Texas at Stika’s request.

Law enforcement allegedly informed the diocese of the woman’s report about Punnackal before the grand jury indictment, but did not take action until the indictment, the complaint states. 

The diocese has only responded to the lawsuit so far with a motion to strike certain language in the complaint that primarily are about the other ongoing lawsuit against the diocese.

That Knox County lawsuit alleges the diocese mishandled an investigation into claims that one of Stika’s assistants raped a musician working for The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville.

The plaintiff in the Sevier County case experienced such mental anguish from the alleged assault “that she voluntarily gave temporary custody of her children to the government. She is in the process of recovering custody of her children,” the complaint said. 

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at or on Twitter @liamsadams.