Lawsuit alleges Knoxville diocese impeded sexual assault investigation

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Bishop Richard Stika speaks at a memorial on July 31, 2021.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Bishop Richard Stika speaks at a memorial on July 31, 2021.

In a complaint filed in federal court late last week, a Honduran asylum seeker who said a priest at her Catholic church in Gatlinburg, Tenn., sexually assaulted her in 2020 accused the East Tennessee diocese of intentionally obstructing a subsequent law enforcement investigation.

The lawsuit describes diocese officials as attempting to discredit and intimidate a vulnerable sexual assault victim -- allegations going beyond the negligence claims made in a civil suit earlier this year in state court.

That suit, filed in Sevier County, accused the Rev. Antony Punnackal of sexually assaulting the plaintiff when she met with him for grief counseling in 2020, following the death of her partner. He was a priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Gatlinburg at the time. The lawsuit was filed shortly after a grand jury indicted him on sexual battery charges related to the same incident.

In response to that lawsuit, Punnackal acknowledged meeting with the plaintiff but denied the assault allegation.

The state-level suit also accused diocesan officials of negligence for failing to prevent the alleged assault and take any corrective actions – such as disciplining the priest, who, according to the lawsuit, remained in his post for roughly two years following the incident until a grand jury indicted him.

The new lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, draws in part on events that took place after the initial lawsuit and expands on allegations of diocesan misconduct, asserting it made a concerted effort to cover up the alleged assault.

Citing the pending litigation, spokesman Jim Wogan at the Knoxville-based diocese did not answer several questions from the Chattanooga Times Free Press about allegations made in the lawsuit.

"We have always maintained that the proper way to address the claims is through the courts, which we will do," he said by email Monday. "We trust the process and will not comment while this case is being litigated."

The plaintiff recently filed a motion to allow the claims of the state-level case to be effectively absorbed into the federal lawsuit. The criminal case remains ongoing.

Punnackal was ordained in India and served as a priest in Texas. He joined the Diocese of Knoxville around 2010 at the invitation of Bishop Richard Stika and in 2014 transferred to Gatlinburg's St. Mary's Catholic Church, which the lawsuit said has a large community of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

The new federal lawsuit accuses Punnackal of attempting to traffic the plaintiff. According to federal law, trafficking can involve the coercion of vulnerable people to obtain labor or services.

By January 2020, the plaintiff, struggling to support her family and navigate immigration bureaucracy, sought help from Punnackal. The lawsuit claims Punnackal in one meeting gave her gift cards using diocesan funds and in another meeting attempted to touch her "in a sexual manner" but was rebuffed, and then he offered to give her money for her immigration case.

In February 2020, the father of one of the plaintiff's children was killed in Honduras while completing his term in a dangerous government job, the lawsuit said.

Bereft and isolated, the plaintiff scheduled a grief counseling session, according to the lawsuit. Though Punnackal did not speak Spanish and the plaintiff's English was severely limited, a bilingual assistant left them in the room together, at which point Punnackal locked the door, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges that after she showed the priest a video memorializing her dead partner, he commented on her breasts, and then started fondling her without consent, as she tried to rebuff him.

According to the lawsuit, despite fearing she would not be believed, the plaintiff reported the assault to police, at the recommendation of another pastor.

Knoxville diocesan policy at the time stated that initial investigations of sexual abuse "shall include (if possible) interviews of the principals involved." But the diocese, after learning of the assault, never contacted the plaintiff as part of its investigation, the lawsuit said.

The diocese also had a policy stating that if there is sufficient evidence of sexual abuse, the diocese "shall" withdraw the accused from clergy functions pending an outcome. But the diocese did not at the time suspend Punnackal from his position as a priest at St. Mary's Church, said the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said the plaintiff's mental health deteriorated after the alleged assault. Rumors that she was not credible, spread by diocesan officials, the lawsuit claims, spread in the local Latino community. And two different Diocesan Review Board members contacted law enforcement in an effort to dissuade them from their investigation, the lawsuit said.

Facing severe mental health challenges, the plaintiff voluntarily gave temporary custody of her children to child protective services, said the lawsuit, which added that she is now in the process of recovering custody.

On Jan. 4, 2022, the same day the diocese newsletter ran a story showing Punnackal appearing with Stika at the groundbreaking of a new church, a Sevier County grand jury indicted the priest on charges of sexual battery and sexual battery by an authority figure.

On Jan. 6, the diocese suspended Punnackal from his ministry, said Wogan, who added that the priest is being represented by his own attorney.

Later in January, under the "Jane Doe" pseudonym, the plaintiff filed the civil suit against the priest and the diocese in the Circuit Court of Sevier County.

The new federal lawsuit claims a private investigator hired by the diocese contacted the plaintiff's former employers after the Sevier County civil suit was filed. In April of this year, the private investigator contacted law enforcement, saying the plaintiff had committed employment fraud by working under a different name and asked for her to be arrested. The federal government has given the plaintiff the legal right to work in the U.S., the lawsuit said.

The plaintiff became "extremely distressed," the lawsuit said, upon learning the diocese said it held information alleging she worked under a false name. Allegations -- unsubstantiated or otherwise -- of identity fraud could be grounds for immigration officers to detain asylum seekers, or to deny an asylum claim.

Intimidated, the plaintiff nearly dropped her civil and criminal claims, the lawsuit said. She seeks $5 million in compensation from the defendants for damages.

The Diocese of Knoxville has faced multiple lawsuits in recent years alleging it mishandled sexual abuse claims.

Another ongoing lawsuit alleges one diocese employee sexually abused another and that the diocese mishandled an investigation into the matter.

"The diocese expects the process to be fair and thorough and looks forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend itself if this matter moves forward," Wogan said when that suit was filed in February.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431. Follow him on Twitter @aonSchwartz.