Lawsuit: Knoxville diocese mishandled sex abuse claim

April 22, 2022 GMT

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A lawsuit says the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville mishandled a report about allegations that a priest sexually abused a parishioner.

The lawsuit filed in Sevier County says Father Antony D. Punnackal locked an adult female plaintiff in a room on Feb. 17, 2020, and fondled her, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. Police allegedly informed the diocese about the allegations against Punnackal before he was indicted by a grand jury, but no action was taken until the indictment, the complaint states.

The woman “rebuffed Punnackal but he continued his assault,” until he unlocked the door, according to the complaint filed in March, but sealed until recently.

Punnackal was suspended from his role as pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg after being indicted in January on charges of sexual battery and sexual battery by an authority figure, according to records included with the lawsuit.

ADVERTISEMENT

The diocese declined to comment on pending litigation.

“It would be inappropriate for the diocese to comment on allegations raised in an ongoing civil lawsuit,” spokesperson Jim Wogan told the newspaper.

Punnackal, who is also named as a defendant in the suit, said in a court response that he was alone with the woman for a grief counseling meeting, but he denied any allegations of assault.

It’s the second lawsuit filed this year against the Knoxville Diocese over its handling of sex abuse claims. A complaint filed in February in Knox County alleged the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and its bishop did not properly investigate claims of sexual abuse against an assistant to Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika.