Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]
February 13, 2023
By Tyler Whetstone
In a Sunday morning homily on sin, a Catholic Diocese of Knoxville priest condemned Knox News for its ongoing reporting on two separate sexual assault complaints against the church and the diocese’s efforts to obstruct the investigations and intimidate the alleged victims.
The message was delivered Feb. 12 during the 11 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by the Rev. David Boettner, one of the diocese’s highest-ranking clergy members and pastor of the cathedral.
He used the opening words of his homily on “sin and the choices we make” to criticize Knox News’ investigative coverage.
“So first, sin. You know, one of the things about the way the media reports about the Catholic Church is interesting because they don’t really have specialists on religion that report on the church,” Boettner said. “They usually assign a sportswriter to cover the church. So, whenever they try to describe what Catholics believe and what Catholics do, you should always be a little bit skeptical. They often get it wrong. Like 99% of the time.
“So, when it comes to our understanding of sin, do not look to the News Sentinel for a definition. They’re not going to get it right.”
Knox News’ recent reporting on the diocese’s handling of sex assault allegations has been conducted by investigative reporter Tyler Whetstone. Knox News editor Joel Christopher said he has never assigned a sports reporter to cover the church, nor has he ever heard of another newsroom doing so.
“Either Boettner was purposely spreading a falsehood or his fact-checking was terribly sloppy,” Christopher said.
Victim advocates blast priest
Bob Hoatson, cofounder of Road to Recovery, a sex abuse survivors advocacy agency in New Jersey, sent a letter to Boettner after hearing his criticism of Knox News’ reporting on the abuse lawsuits.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.
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“You sinned yesterday by telling lies and attacking a reporter and his newspaper for doing their job (refer to the 9th Commandment – thou shalt not bear false witness). The newspaper is not the bearer of false witness – the CHURCH is!” he wrote.
David Clohessy, former executive director of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the homily shows little has changed in a church that has been rocked for decades by sexual abuse scandals.
“This incident is further proof that little in the church’s deeply rooted culture of secrecy and self-protection has changed, despite decades of horrific scandal,” Clohessy wrote in an email to Knox News.
He told Knox News the priest’s homily, which was shared on the cathedral’s YouTube account was “designed to intimidate” those who might speak up about abuse.
“If Stika wants to restore faith in the Catholic hierarchy, he should harshly and publicly punish this priest. He should insist that his staff and flock stop being mean-spirited towards the vulnerable, the wounded, their supporters and the media, which has done more to safeguard kids and expose wrongdoing than any institution we have,” Clohessy wrote.
The first lawsuit and the quest for secrecy
One lawsuit was filed by a former church employee who says he was raped by a church seminarian. The man says the diocese, led by Bishop Richard Stika, cut short an investigation into the accusation and worked to discredit him. Knox News is referring to him as John Doe to protect his identity because he says he was the victim of a sexual assault.
Knox News has independently confirmed Stika interfered with the investigation.
On Feb. 6, a week before Boettner’s homily, Knox News reported how the diocese filed legal documents to allow it to keep secret some of its materials related to the church’s sexual abuse review board and “private meetings of priests of the Diocese.”
The diocese also refiled a request to protect investigative documents related to complaints filed against Stika.
The legal maneuver to shield information comes after the diocese successfully sought a judge’s order to force the man to file his lawsuit under his legal name instead of a pseudonym. People who say they were sexually assaulted often are allowed to pursue lawsuits under a pseudonym because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Advocates for victims of abuse say the move was meant to intimidate him and anyone else who would accuse the church of wrongdoing.
Separately, the lawsuit claims, Stika told a roomful of priests in 2021 that the man had the whole story backward. In Stika’s account, the man is a predator who sexually abused the seminarian, according to new details included in a lawsuit by the alleged victim. The lawsuit also claims Stika told another group of priests that the man groomed the seminarian for sexual abuse.
The second lawsuit and allegations of intimidation
Jane Doe is a placeholder name in a lawsuit to protect the identity of a Honduran asylum seeker living in Gatlinburg who alleges 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 woman alleges the diocese worked to discredit and intimidate her, including making calls to police to make claims that could have caused her to be deported.
Punnackal was later indicted by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery.
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.