Knoxville bishop ended rape investigation early, sources tell Knox News

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

January 11, 2023

By Tyler Whitestone

A lawsuit says that the Most Rev. Richard Stika interfered in the investigation, and Knox News has independently confirmed that assertion

Two people who played key roles in a review by the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville into whether a seminarian raped a diocesan employee in 2019 told Knox News that Bishop Richard Stika interfered with the effort, independently confirming allegations that are detailed in a lawsuit by the man who says he was sexually assaulted.

Before a lawsuit was filed in February 2022 by John Doe, a placeholder name to protect the identity of the man who reported the rape, the church’s review board hired retired Tennessee Valley Authority investigator George Prosser to investigate the claims.

Prosser was a true outsider. He’s not Catholic and has no ties to the diocese, which is the spiritual home of about 70,000 Catholics in East Tennessee.

Prosser told Knox News he was hired by Ward Philips, the board member who typically serves as the diocese’s attorney in sexual misconduct lawsuits. Prosser’s investigation never brought him into contact with the review board. Regardless, his investigation did not last long.

“I initiated an investigation but was not allowed to finish it,” he said. “It was my understanding that the bishop stopped my investigation.”

Prosser said Phillips called him less than two weeks after he started work and “told me the bishop wanted me to stop the investigation.”

“I guess the bishop has the authority to do that,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, I’m done.’ But Ward did not give me a reason. I didn’t ask him for a reason. If the Catholic diocese asked me to investigate, then I would. If they asked me to stop investigating, then I would.”

A former review board member, who Knox News is not naming to protect the person from retaliation, confirmed Prosser’s story and said Stika let Prosser go because he was asking too many questions. It was concerning, the board member said, because members were worried the seminarian could move on to other parishes that didn’t know about the allegations.

“We also felt a moral obligation,” the former review member told Knox News. “We were thinking down the road years from now if this man ever gets ordained and another accusation comes up after his ordination, and we realized that there were signs back in 2021 or so that were never addressed and dealt with, we could be held liable.”

A spokesperson for the diocese declined to comment for this report, citing pending litigation. Among the questions the diocese has not answered is where the seminarian now lives and whether he is still on track to be ordained as a priest or has been ordained.

The diocese ended up replacing Prosser with another investigator, Chris Manning, who told the Catholic news publication, The Pillar, he interviewed only the former employee and not the plaintiff. The lawsuit relies heavily on revelations unearthed by The Pillar, which first reported on Stika’s removal of Prosser in May 2021.

No investigation into another sexual assault allegation

Separately, the former review board member confirmed earlier reporting by Knox News that the church’s review board never looked into allegations made by a Sevier County parishioner who said she was sexually assaulted in 2020 by a priest and then intimidated by the diocese after she reported it.

The review 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.”

In a lawsuit filed in November 2022 by the woman, identified in legal documents as Jane Doe to protect her identity, she asserts no one contacted her after she reported to police in Sevier County she had been groped by the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. She said the assault occurred during counseling Punnackal was providing after the death of the father of her infant.

Punnackal was indicted in January 2022 by a Sevier County grand jury on two criminal counts of sexual battery and scheduled for trial.

The diocese hired an investigator, not Prosser, to look into the allegations by the woman, a Honduran asylum seeker living in Gatlinburg. After obtaining her employment documents, the investigator 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.

Complaints don’t always begin with the review board so it’s conceivable members could be unaware of allegations against clergy. But in Jane Doe’s case, members of the review board knew about her allegations, according to her lawsuit. At least one member contacted police investigators, first to tell them the woman had engaged in a consensual sexual encounter with Punnackal, the lawsuit asserts.

Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. Make our community, our society and our republic stronger by supporting robust local journalism. Subscribe online at