Jury acquits Catholic priest in Tennessee who was charged with sexual battery

A jury has found a Catholic priest in Tennessee innocent.

By means ofThe Associated Press

November 20, 2023, 1:39 PM

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — A jury has acquitted a Catholic priest in Tennessee of sexually assaulting a woman who was a member of the church.

Jurors handed down the verdict late last week in the case against Father Antony Punnackal, who was suspended from his role as pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg after being indicted in January 2022 on two counts of sexual assault.

The charges focused on allegations made in February 2020 regarding Punnackal’s actions toward the parishioner. A lawsuit by the woman remains active.

Punnackal has denied all allegations of assault. His attorney Travis McCarter told the news media in a statement that the priest is a “wonderful human being and we are pleased to finally show the world that he is innocent of these charges.”

An attorney for the woman pointed to her lawsuit, adding in a statement that “a civil case under federal human trafficking laws is very different” from a criminal case.

The federal lawsuit targets Punnackal, the diocese and a Catholic congregation, alleging that Punnackal committed a sexual assault when the asylum-seeking mother of three came to him for grief counseling after the father of her child was murdered.

“This case is stronger now than it was a week ago,” said Andrew Fels, the woman’s attorney.

Father Doug Owens, deputy of the apostolic administrator in the Diocese of Knoxville, shared the news of the verdict in the criminal case “with great relief.”

“The stress that Father Punnackal endured in the many months leading up to his trial must have been unimaginable, but he has always maintained his innocence and we are grateful that the jury heard the testimony, reviewed the evidence and agreed with it. agreed,” Owens said. a statement.

Owens said the diocese will not comment on the lawsuit “until its fate can be decided.”