Local Update: Trial begins for East Tennessee Catholic priest accused of sexual assault

Catching up with developments in past Times Free Press stories

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, completed in 2018, is the seat of the bishop of Knoxville. The diocese governs East Tennessee, including the Roman Catholic Churches in the Chattanooga area. The cathedral was photographed June 10.

Then: A Honduran asylum seeker filed a lawsuit about a year ago accusing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville of trying to discredit and intimidate her and obstruct a law enforcement investigation after she reported she was sexually assaulted by a priest.

The plaintiff, identified by the pseudonym "Jane Doe," had previously reported that in February 2020, she met with the Rev. Antony Punnackal of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Gatlinburg for grief counseling following the death of her partner. In this meeting, she said, the priest commented on her breasts and fondled her despite her efforts to rebuff him.

Punnackal has acknowledged having met with the plaintiff but denied her assault allegation.

On Jan 4. 2022, court documents show, a grand jury indicted the priest on one count of sexual battery and one count of sexual battery by an authority figure, a felony. Two days later he was suspended from ministry, the diocese said. In a March 2022 lawsuit, the plaintiff recounted having reported the alleged assault to police but said the diocese, after learning of the report, did not suspend Punnackal from his priestly post — one of multiple policy breaches she alleged.

(READ MORE: The rise and fall of Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika)

The lawsuit in state court was supplanted by a second filed Nov. 11, 2022, in federal court. It alleged that in the intervening months, a diocese-contracted private investigator contacted her former employers as well as law enforcement with allegations she had committed employment fraud by working under a different name.

This investigator, her lawsuit alleged, had asked law enforcement to arrest her. Distraught and fearing the employment fraud allegations might undermine her asylum claim, Doe was nearly intimidated into dropping both her civil and criminal cases, the suit said.

Her second suit also brought more serious allegations against Punnackal, who it accused of sex trafficking — which can involve the coercion of vulnerable people to obtain labor or services.

The Diocese of Knoxville governs Catholic parishes across East Tennessee, including in Chattanooga. Stating that the diocese trusted the legal process, spokesperson Jim Wogan last year declined to comment on the claims made in the lawsuit but added Punnackal is being represented by his own attorney.

Now: On March 3, the presiding judge paused Doe's lawsuit until the completion of criminal proceedings against Punnackal — a court order for which both Doe and the diocese advocated.

The priest's criminal trial began Wednesday with jury selection in Sevier County Circuit Court.

The trial was initially scheduled to begin May 10 before being moved to Sept. 7 — and then getting delayed again due to the unavailability of a necessary witness, according to court documents.

It is expected to last about three days, a court clerk said by phone.

Neither the Sevier County district attorney's office nor Travis McCarter, the attorney representing Punnackal, responded by press time to interview requests.

The parties in Doe's civil lawsuit naming the diocese are required to file a status report with the presiding judge within 10 days of the resolution of Punnackal's criminal proceeding.

Local Update

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Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.