Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]
November 14, 2022
By Tyler Whetstone
The Catholic Diocese of Knoxville worked to discredit and intimidate a woman who said she was sexually assaulted in 2020 by a Gatlinburg priest, according to a new federal lawsuit.
The Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, groped her while he counseled her after the father of her infant died, she says in a lawsuit filed last week.
The woman went to the police, and Punnackal was indicted Jan. 4 by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery.
The diocese then hired an investigator who worked to obstruct the investigation by intimidating the woman, the lawsuit says.
The woman, who is Honduran and is seeking asylum in the United States, says the investigator illegally acquired her employment records, seeking to discredit and intimidate her and potentially jeopardizing her pending asylum case.
A spokesperson for the diocese declined to comment or answer a list of questions from Knox News, other than to acknowledge Punnackal was “taken out of active ministry” on Jan. 6.
“We have always maintained that the proper way to address the claims is through the courts, which we will do. We trust the process and will not comment while this case is being litigated,” diocesan spokesperson Jim Wogan wrote in an email to Knox News.
The complaint is the second filed against the Knoxville diocese asserting leaders did not properly investigate sexual abuse allegations and instead worked to discredit the plaintiff.
It is the third ongoing abuse-related lawsuit in Tennessee against the Catholic Church. The third involves the Diocese of Nashville, and is related to incidents in Murfreesboro. The plaintiffs in all three cases are unnamed.
The woman’s attorney, Andrew Fels, declined to comment other than to say “the complaint speaks for itself.”
How the priest became the woman’s counselor
The woman had visited with Punnackal on two previous occasions in early 2020, seeking help with her asylum case and to make ends meet for herself and her three children. The woman does not speak fluent English and the two communicated via a translation app on her cell phone.
In details laid out in the lawsuit, the woman describes Punnackal’s actions:
- He helped her by giving her gift cards for food, purchased by the diocese.
- Punnackal made advances in at least one of these meetings but was rebuffed.
- In their third and final meeting on Feb. 17, 2020, just days after the father of the woman’s infant child died while serving in the Honduran armed services, she met with Punnackal for grief counseling in a room at the church.
- She tried to show Punnackal a memorial video of her child’s father, but the priest was uninterested. He pantomimed and made reference to her breasts. From there, Punnackal “fondled her breasts and buttocks.”
- The woman “rebuffed Punnackal but he continued his assault.”
- Punnackal eventually unlocked the door and the woman fled.
Punnackal admitted in a court response to being alone with the woman on that day for a grief counseling meeting, but denied he assaulted her. The criminal case against him is ongoing.
“Our position is he absolutely has and continues to maintain his innocence through this whole thing,” Punnackal attorney Michael Green told Knox News. “We’ve found nothing to suggest the diocese interfered with the investigation. We look forward to moving forward with it.”
Diocese ignored own investigative process, suit says
The church’s Diocesan Review Board was created to review sexual misconduct and assault allegations within the church, but the board failed to properly investigate the case, the lawsuit alleges.
The board requires officials to immediately contact any adult who says they were sexually exploited “to offer assurance of the concern of the diocese and its commitment to hear and respond in an appropriate way to the accusations.” No one contacted her, the lawsuit asserts.
Instead, members of the board contacted police investigators, first to tell them the woman had engaged in a consensual sexual encounter with Punnackal.
The diocese also hired an investigator to look into the allegations and, after obtaining her employment documents, contacted police and told them the woman had committed employment fraud by working under a false name and asked for her to be arrested, the lawsuit says.
Such an allegation, true or not, could cause problems for the woman’s asylum claim, and the investigator knew this, the lawsuit says.
Throughout the ordeal, the woman began struggling with her mental health, spending time at in-take facilities and temporarily giving up custody of her kids to the state, the lawsuit says. She is currently working to regain custody of her children.
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. Make our community, our society and our republic stronger by supporting robust local journalism. Subscribe online at knoxnews.com/subscribe.