Defense: Woman who accuses Gatlinburg priest of sexual battery plotted to commit fraud

WBIR-TV, Ch. 10-NBC [Knoxville TN]

May 6, 2023

By John North

Antony Punnackal faces a hearing Monday in Sevier County.

The attorney for a Gatlinburg priest accused of sexually battering a Central American woman says he has video evidence showing the woman schemed to commit tax fraud, information that would undermine her credibility in the criminal case against her alleged attacker.

Travis D. McCarter filed a motion last week in Sevier County Circuit Court on behalf of client Antony D. Punnackal, who is charged with battering the woman and with sexual battery by an authority figure.

Punnackal faces a hearing Monday morning ahead of a planned trial Wednesday, although McCarter is seeking to delay the trial.

According to McCarter, the priest’s accuser also has been recorded on video talking about the criminal case.

“Perhaps most importantly, the alleged victim makes a statement in the video that roughly translates to an admission that the alleged victim believes the detective that dropped her case (as it had not been prosecuted as quickly as she would like) because he knew ‘it was all lies.’ That statement constitutes perhaps the most crucial piece of evidence in the entire case as it could be evaluated by a jury as a direct admission that the allegations against (Punnackal) are fabricated,” the attorney argues.

“This statement could very well be the arbiter of the jury’s determination as to the guilt or innocence of (Punnackal).”

The woman, a Honduras native who speaks little English, alleges Punnackal fondled her behind closed doors during a one-on-one meeting Feb. 17, 2020, at St. Mary’s Church in Gatlinburg.

McCarter says the accusations against his client are false.

Lawyers for the woman, identified as “Jane Doe,” also have filed a federal lawsuit in Knoxville in the case. Named as a defendant besides Punnackal are the Diocese of Knoxville and the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate.

That complaint has been put on hold while the criminal case proceeds in Sevier County.

According to the diocese, Punnackal was removed from active ministry in the diocese in January 2022.

According to the complaint, the priest fondled her breasts and buttocks. She tried to rebuff him and leave but the door was locked, the complaint states.

She was seeking asylum in the United States at the time and feared he might try to use the legal process against her, the lawsuit states. The woman immigrated to the United States in 2019.

Eventually, she claims, the priest unlocked the door and she was able to leave.

According to McCarter, he’s been given two videos, which require translation from Spanish.

One video shows two people talking about a “tax fraud scheme” involving the alleged victim having her two children claimed on federal income taxes by a man for which they would split the refund.

The other video shows the woman confronting the man about the money, threatening him, court records state.

According to McCarter, the woman tells the man — falsely — “that she is in contact with the Internal Revenue Service and their attorneys and that they have divulged to her the amount of the tax refund that (the man) should have received. She threatens federal prosecution of the male for tax fraud unless he gives the alleged victim her share of the money,” his motion states.

On the video, another person can be heard threatening the man unless he pays the victim.

That constitutes extortion, McCarter argues.

The defense attorney said he thinks the alleged victim has made up lies about Punnackal to get money.

McCarter also has filed a separate motion seeking to suppress evidence taken from a laptop seized at the church parsonage in February 2020. He argues the laptop was improperly searched, and that other people besides his client had access to it and used it regularly. A search by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation exceeded the scope of a search warrant issued to Gatlinburg police in the case, the lawyer argues.

Authorities contend they found pornographic material on the laptop, “and that the presence of said videos, photographs and search history results is evidence of (Punnackal’s) intent to commit the sexual assault in question,” according to the defense motion.

What was found on the laptop has nothing to do with the priest’s case, McCarter argues.

“In the instant case, the alleged pornography at issue does not depict the alleged victim, was not viewed by or shown to the alleged victim, and was not discussed or used at all during any interaction between (Punnackal) and the alleged victim,” the motion states.

Punnackal is free on bond.

Prosecutors allege he preyed on the victim because she was particularly vulnerable.

Judge James L. Gass is presiding over the criminal case.

Separate and unrelated to the Sevier County prosecution, a former church musician has filed suit in Knox County against the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and Bishop Richard Stika. He alleges that a Polish priest-in-training came to his house after celebrating mass one evening in early February 2019, tried to kiss Doe, performed unwanted oral sex on him and then raped him.

The musician alleges Stika intimidated him to stay silent about the assault. Lawyers for the diocese and Stika deny the allegations.

No criminal charge has been filed in that case. The lawsuit is pending.

The now former seminarian and the musician were friends, the church alleges.