East Tennessee priest found not guilty in sexual battery trial

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.

A Sevier County jury has found an East Tennessee Catholic priest accused of sexual battery not guilty on all counts.

The case of the Rev. Antony Punnackal, who most recently served as pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, had become the subject of a 2022 lawsuit accusing the diocese of intimidating and discrediting a sexual assault victim. Punnackal denied the allegations, and the lawsuit was paused to await the outcome of his criminal case.

In a statement Friday on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, the Rev. Doug Owens welcomed the verdict.

"The stress Father Punnackal had to endure in the many months leading up to his trial must have been unimaginable," Owens wrote. "But he always maintained his innocence, and we are grateful that the jury heard the testimony, evaluated the evidence and agreed."

The Sevier County District Attorney's Office did not return a call seeking comment on the case earlier this week.

The civil case remains active; the plaintiff's attorneys indicated by email Friday that despite the not-guilty verdict in the criminal case, they intend to proceed with the lawsuit, which names the diocese, Punnackal and his religious order as defendants.

"Based on what evidence was admitted, at least one juror found a reasonable doubt," wrote one of the plaintiff's attorneys, Andrew Fels, by email Friday. "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."

The diocese, which covers East Tennessee (including Chattanooga), had thus far declined to publicly comment on that lawsuit, citing its trust in the legal process.

"We remain committed to that trust," Owens wrote Friday. "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."

In her suit, the plaintiff, identified as "Jane Doe," reported that in February 2020, she met with the Punnackal for grief counseling following the death of her partner. In this meeting, she alleged, the priest commented on her breasts and fondled her despite her efforts to rebuff him -- accusations Punnackal has denied.

On Jan 4. 2022, nearly two years later, a Sevier County grand jury indicted Punnackal on one count of sexual battery and one count of sexual battery by an authority figure.

Shortly after, Doe filed a lawsuit accusing the diocese of negligence. Then in a subsequent November 2022 lawsuit that supplanted the first one, she accused the diocese of actively seeking to intimidate and discredit her by, among other things, looking into her job history and trying to get her arrested with accusations that she had committed employment fraud by working under a different name.

In the suit, she also accused Punnackal of trafficking -- which can involve the coercion of vulnerable people to obtain labor or services.

In March, Doe and the diocese moved for the judge to pause the trial pending Punnackal's criminal case. Originally set to commence in the spring, that trial was delayed until it began Wednesday in Sevier County.

"We wanted to let a jury hear his voluntary statement regarding what happened so that they could see that his version of events was the only version supported by the evidence in the case," the priest's attorney, Travis McCarter, said in an email to the Times Free Press. "Anyone who spent even ten minutes with my client would see what a kind and caring individual he is and would know that he would never inflict harm upon another human being."

McCarter added, "For a verdict of not guilty to be reached, all twelve jurors must agree on a verdict of 'not guilty' as to that count. It took the jury in Father Antony's case only 90 minutes to unanimously agree that he was not guilty as to all counts."

Efforts to reach Punnackal through the diocese were unsuccessful Friday, and his future as a priest remains unclear.

"Too soon to make decisions about his return," said the diocese spokesperson, Jim Wogan, in an email to the Chattanooga Times Free Press Friday. "It's a process that will involve discussions between him, his religious order, and presumably our apostolic administrator or his delegate. In theory, if a priest is acquitted, he would be eligible to return to active ministry. That's a decision that Father Punnackal would need to make. He's been through a lot, and I don't want to speculate on where his feelings are."

In his statement, Owens said Punnackal's ministry within the diocese, and especially at St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg, has been a tremendous gift and that the decision to remove him from active ministry was difficult but necessary.

"No matter what he decides for his future, his vision and work, especially helping the people of Gatlinburg in their recovery from the 2016 wildfires, and building a new parish family life center, will remain lasting symbols of his work here," Owens wrote.

The presiding judge in the lawsuit had instructed parties to provide a status update within 10 days of completion of criminal proceedings.

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