East Tenn. priest acquitted on sexual battery charges, federal civil case looms

WVLT-TV, PBS-39 [Knoxville TN]

November 17, 2023

By Kelly Ann Krueger

Father Antony Punnackal was found not guilty on sexual battery charges in the criminal case against him

Father Antony Punnackal was acquitted Thursday of two sexual battery charges, according to District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn.

Punnackal was indicted by a Sevier County Grand Jury in January of 2022 on one count of sexual battery by an authority figure and one count of sexual battery and was found not guilty on those charges Thursday.

In February 2020, the father of anonymous Jane Doe’s youngest child was killed. Her primary language was Spanish so she reached out to a bilingual assistant at St. Mary’s Catholic Church to set up a meeting for emotional support and spiritual guidance.

Punnackal was chosen to meet with Doe even though he did not speak Spanish. On Feb. 17, 2020, Doe went to St. Mary’s to meet with Punnackal. The bilingual assistant led her to a room with Punnackal and left them alone, according to court documents.

“Back when Father Punnackal was first charged, the diocese said that we would not comment on the case at that time and that we trusted the legal process. We remain committed to that trust. Soon, we hope to hear more about a civil lawsuit brought against the diocese in this matter. We will refrain from commenting on it until its fate can be decided.”Father Doug Owens, Delegate to the Apostolic Administrator

Previous Coverage: Lawsuit: Gatlinburg priest admits to sexual battery, remained at St. Mary’s Catholic Church

In April of that year, a federal civil complaint was also filed for the same incident.

The lawsuit claimed Punnackal admitted to the sexual battery. It also claimed then Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika was told by law enforcement of the confession and allowed him to stay in his role as priest of St. Mary’s Catholic Church for almost two years.

WVLT News reached out to Doe’s lawyers for the federal civil case who said not all of the jurors were on the same page.

“Based on what evidence was admitted, at least one juror found a reasonable doubt,” they said. “That’s how our criminal justice system works. A civil case under federal trafficking laws is very different. This case is now stronger than it was a week ago.”

Previous Coverage: Knoxville Catholic Diocese, Bishop Stika accused of rape cover-up in lawsuit

A lawsuit filed in Knox County in 2022, claimed that Stika failed to stop the rape of an employee at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville and then attempted to cover the incident up.

Stika resigned from the diocese in June of 2023 following the allegations that he mishandled sexual abuse claims.

Stika was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville by Pope Benedict XVI on Jan. 12, 2009, and officially took the position of the diocese’s third bishop on March 19, 2009. At 65, Stika is years younger than the normal retirement age for bishops.

Previous Coverage: INTERVIEW: Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika resigns after alleged sex abuse coverups

According to diocese communications director Jim Wogan, Pope Francis accepted Stika’s resignation but has not appointed a new bishop yet.

Now that the criminal case was closed, WVLT News contacted the Gatlinburg police department for a copy of the investigation.