Jury finds accused Gatlinburg priest not guilty of sexual battery

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

November 17, 2023

By Tyler Whetstone

A former Catholic priest stationed in Gatlinburg was found not guilty of sexual battery by a Sevier County jury Nov. 16.

Nearly two years after he was indicted, a jury found the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal, formerly of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, not guilty of allegations he groped a woman while he counseled her after the father of her infant died.

“My client is a terrific human being and we are glad to finally be able to show the world that he’s innocent of these accusations,” Punnackal’s attorney Travis McCarter wrote to Knox News in a text.

The woman, who is Honduran and does not speak fluent English, is seeking asylum in the United States. She alleged that while meeting with 61-year-old Punnackal for grief counseling, the priest pantomimed and made reference to her breasts. From there, he “fondled her breasts and buttocks.”

Punnackal admitted in a court response to being alone with the woman on that day for a grief counseling meeting, but denied assaulting her.

Separately, the woman has sued Punnackal and the Diocese of Knoxville, saying the abuse was followed by the church officials hiring an investigator who worked to obstruct the investigation by intimidating her. The lawsuit said the investigator illegally acquired her employment records, seeking to discredit and intimidate her and potentially jeopardize her pending asylum case.

The lawsuit has been paused while the criminal case made its way through the courts. The woman’s attorney in the civil trial, Rachel Bonano, told Knox News they will press forward despite the loss.

It is the second lawsuit filed against the Knoxville diocese asserting leaders did not properly investigate sexual abuse allegations and instead worked to discredit the plaintiff. The other alleges a former seminarian raped a former church employee.

Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at tyler.whetstone@knoxnews.com. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @tyler_whetstone.