Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]
November 22, 2022
By Tyler Whetstone
- The lawyer for the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville sits on a sexual abuse review board while also defending the church against an abuse lawsuit.
- “It is a worst practice, one that mocks the claim by U.S. bishops that they’ve turned a new leaf when it. comes to abuse,” says one watchdog.
- Sexual abuse review boards were created by the Catholic church as a response to the explosive sexual abuse findings in the early 2000s.
- The diocese said it “is confident that no conflicts exist under the facts of the case.”
When Jane Doe filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville earlier this year, diocesan leaders had known for nearly two years about her account of being sexually assaulted by a priest. The knowledge went all the way to Bishop Richard Stika, the leader of the diocese.
Yet against the norms of the Catholic Church, Stika was listed as a member of the review board that investigates allegations of sexual misconduct within the diocese. What’s more, the diocese’s lawyer also is a member of the review board, meaning the same person is simultaneously defending the diocese and conducting what’s supposed to be an independent investigation into the allegation.
Jane Doe is a placeholder name in the lawsuit to protect the identity of the woman, a Honduran asylum seeker living in Gatlinburg who says the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, groped her while he counseled her after the death of the father of her infant.
The diocese says Stika was mistakenly listed as a member and is not on the review board. There’s no way, however, that sexual assault victims seeking help would know it was an error. And experts in accountability say it’s alarming that Ward Phillips, the diocese’s lawyer, is on the review board. It shows a major conflict of interest that throws doubt on the board’s work, they told Knox News.
“When a diocesan attorney belongs to a review board, the board forfeits its credibility. It is a worst practice, one that mocks the claim by U.S. bishops that they’ve turned a new leaf when it comes to abuse,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of bishopaccountability.org, an online public library of information about the Catholic clergy abuse crisis.
Helene M. Weiss is an attorney at New York City’s James Marsh Law firm, which has expertise in abuse lawsuits against the Catholic church. There’s likely nothing illegal about Ward’s placement on the board and his role as lawyer for the diocese, she said, but it could be a conflict of interest.
“Although the board may want to appear as a neutral investigator, their interests in reviewing these sexual abuse cases seldom overlap with the best interests of the abuse survivor,” she wrote to Knox News in an email.
“This is the reality when you have an institution who perpetrated and enabled abuse for centuries acting as the primary ‘investigator’ into these cases. Obviously, there is a clear need for independent investigations by law enforcement agencies in every case like this.”
Both the diocese and Phillips declined to answer a list of questions about the board, Stika and Phillips’ involvement with it and potential conflicts of interest, other than to say Stika is not a member and his inclusion as a board member was an oversight.
In a statement, diocesan spokesperson Jim Wogan said, “the diocese is confident that no conflicts exist under the facts of the case.”
Review board is a problem, activists say
Phillips has been the lawyer for the diocese since 2010, according to his online resume. It is not clear how long he has been a member of the Diocesan Review Board.
Both Stika and Phillips were listed as members of the board in 2020 after Jane Doe told people she had been sexually assaulted, according a list of board members viewed in the internet archive Wayback Machine. Both remained listed on the board until April, when new members were appointed and Stika’s name was removed and Ward was moved to an ex-officio role, meaning he’s still on the board.
“I think these review boards are rife with conflicts of interest, but this one seems more blatant and egregious than I’ve ever seen,” said David Clohessy, former executive director of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Bishops are permitted to meet with a review board under United States Conference of Catholic Bishops guidelines, Wogan wrote. “It makes sense that, because the board is advisory, the bishop would need to have some interaction with it. It’s my understanding that this has happened only rarely for Bishop Stika.”
Clohessy said the very makeup of these boards can be an intentional way of discouraging potential victims from coming forward to report sexual misconduct.
“So, putting it more specifically, if I am afraid my abuser may be hurting others and I ponder calling the diocese, but I find out the bishop himself is on the board I’m going to be very reluctant to call,” Clohessy said. “Or if I find out a board member is now in court defending an accused (priest) of the diocese then I’m certainly not going to go to the church.
“Any rational person would look at how these boards function or are chosen and say this is not a genuine effort to bring victims forward,” he continued. “It’s just a more shrewd and less obvious way of continuing the coverup.”
Why review boards exist
Sexual abuse review boards were created by the Catholic church as a response to the explosive sexual abuse findings in the early 2000s, which gained international attention through reporting by the Boston Globe.
A board advises a bishop on allegations against church leaders, primarily priests, of sexual abuse and are supposed to give victims the opportunity for validation from the church, especially in old cases protected by statute of limitation rules that prevent any sort of legal remedy. While dioceses are required to report possible crimes to authorities, review boards and their findings are separate from secular law enforcement.
“Ward’s double roles as review board member and diocesan attorney raise doubt about all of the board’s decisions during his tenure,” Barrett Doyle said. “It’s one of several alarming signs that the Knoxville diocese is one of the most dysfunctional in the U.S. The Tennessee attorney general should investigate.”
A pattern of review board failures
An extensive 2019 Associated Press investigation found review boards broadly failed to uphold their founding commitments of protecting victims and removing predatory priests. Instead, the AP found, the boards routinely undermined sex abuse claims from victims, shielded accused priests and helped the church avoid payouts.
The AP found it wasn’t unusual for a diocese to place an attorney on one of these review boards, an immediate potential conflict of interest because the same person who handles abuse cases for the church could be hearing victims’ allegations.
While Knoxville’s diocese names the board members, many dioceses do not, the AP found.
How we got here
Earlier this month, Jane Doe, who originally sued in state court, refiled her lawsuit in federal court. She said the diocese worked to discredit and intimidate her after she said she was sexually assaulted in 2020 by a Gatlinburg priest.
The woman says she went to the police soon after the assault, but it took until Jan. 4 for Punnackal to be indicted by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery. He was removed from ministry two days after the indictment, a diocesan spokesperson said.
The board’s bylaws require 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 Jane Doe, her 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 pending asylum claim, and the investigator knew this, the lawsuit says.
Since the diocese has not yet responded to the new federal lawsuit it is not clear whether Phillips will continue representing the church in this case.
Jane Doe has struggled with her mental health throughout the process of alleging sexual assault by a priest. She has spent time at intake facilities and temporarily gave up custody of her kids to the state, according to the lawsuit. She is working to regain custody of her children.
Jane Doe’s 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.
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at email@example.com. 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.