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Widow says she was groped by Catholic priest during grief counseling session

The Honduran exile also claims in a federal lawsuit that the Diocese of Knoxville tried to protect the priest by tarring her reputation.

A Honduran asylum-seeker living in Tennessee alleges in a federal lawsuit that the Diocese of Knoxville tried to sabotage a police investigation after she accused a priest of groping her during a grief counseling session following her husband’s death. 

Identified in court papers as Jane Doe, the mother of three alleges in the lawsuit filed on Nov. 10  that the diocese “obstructed law enforcement” and tried to intimidate her into “abandoning her cooperation with the criminal prosecution” of the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal.

The lawsuit also states that Punnackal hired a private investigator to dig up the widow’s employment records, and she became a pariah in the Hispanic community of Gatlinburg after “agents” of the diocese began spreading false rumors about her.

“The complaint speaks for itself,” the widow’s lawyer, Andrew Fels, told NBC News, when asked to elaborate. He is seeking $5 million in damages for his client. 

Punnackal, who was the pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, was indicted in January by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery against the Honduran woman. That case is ongoing.

Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
St. Mary's Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, Tenn.Google

His lawyer, Travis McCarter, said in an email that Punnackal “maintains his innocence, as he has from the beginning of this process.”

“The Plaintiff’s Complaint is riddled with misrepresentations as to the character and conduct of Father Punnackal that we look forward to challenging in open court,” McCarter said. 

In an earlier interview with Knox News, McCarter’s associate, Michael Green, said that “we’ve found nothing to suggest the diocese interfered with the investigation.”

“The diocese was made aware of the filing Monday morning,” diocesan spokesman Jim Wogan said in an email to NBC News. “We have always maintained that the proper way to address the claims is through the courts, which we will do. We trust the process and will not comment while this case is being litigated.”

As for Punnackal, Wogan said the priest was “taken out of active ministry in the diocese on Jan. 6, 2022.”

This is not the first time that the Diocese of Knoxville, led by Bishop Rick Stika, has been accused of trying to cover up alleged sex misconduct by a priest. In February, a former church organist claimed in an ongoing lawsuit that he was raped by a seminarian in 2019 and that Stika and his allies in the diocese tried to intimidate the accuser “into silence.”

Richard Stika, bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 8, 2019.
Bishop Richard Stika at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 8, 2019.Calvin Mattheis / USA Today Network

“Bishop Stika was notified of the filing,” Wogan said in February. “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.”

The Knoxville bishop is not named as a defendant in the federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Tennessee, but the diocese is and so is the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, the religious congregation to which Punnackal belongs. 

Stika has not commented on the allegations and attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful. The Carmelites of Mary Immaculate did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stika’s alleged abuse of his authority has sparked a rebellion by some members of his flock and drawn criticism from prominent lay Roman Catholics like Jeannie Gaffigan, a comedy writer best known for producing the shows of her husband, the comedian Jim Gaffigan. She also co-hosts a podcast called “Field Hospital” that has been examining the wider Catholic priest sex abuse scandal.

The widow filed a separate lawsuit with the Sevier County Circuit Court this year against Punnackal and the diocese alleging sexual assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress — seeking unspecified damages. 

In the federal lawsuit, the widow alleges that Punnackal violated federal sex trafficking laws by offering her money to help with her asylum case in exchange for sex, and that the diocese tried to obstruct or hinder law enforcement investigations and prosecutions to protect an alleged predator priest. 

Fleeing the violence in Honduras, the widow crossed the border into the U.S. with her children in 2019 and was granted the right to work while she awaited the results of her asylum application, her suit states. Her second husband, a Honduran government worker, stayed behind and was killed on Feb. 13, 2020.

“Bereaved, socially isolated, and with no other source of social support,” the lawsuit states, the widow reached out to Punnackal for assistance just days later.

Even though she barely spoke English and Punnackal did not speak Spanish, the widow said the bilingual church interpreter left her alone with the priest who then locked the door. 

While trying to show Punnackal a memorial video of her husband’s lifeless body, the lawsuit says the priest ignored the video and “pointed to Plaintiff’s breasts, asking in pantomime whether she had just given birth and had a baby.” Then “without invitation or consent, Defendant Punnackal began fondling Plaintiff’s breasts and buttocks,” the suit states. 

The widow said she tried at first to “physically rebuff” the priest.

“She was intimidated into not leaving by Defendant Punnackal’s status in the community, her fear that he might deny her further access to food for her family, and the fear that he might be able to use legal process against her, such as disrupting her asylum claim,” her suit states.

Later, with the help of another priest, the widow reported the alleged assault to the Gatlinburg Police Department, which opened an investigation.

Meanwhile, the suit states, “agents” of the Diocese began spreading a rumor through the local Hispanic community that the widow had falsely accused the priest of assault, which led to her being “shunned and harassed” by members of the community. 

Punnackal also hired a private investigator to intimidate the accuser “into believing that her asylum claim would be denied” if she testified against the priest, according to the lawsuit.

In March 2020, the lawsuit states, an unnamed attorney who serves on the Diocesan Review Board, whose job it is to do in-house investigations of priests accused of sex abuse, called the detectives working on the case and claimed the assault “had been a consensual encounter.”

The next year, “yet another member of the Diocesan Review Board called law enforcement officers” in an attempt “to further discredit plaintiff’s account,” according to the lawsuit, which also states that the “officers rebuffed that attempt.”

NBC News has also reached out to the Gatlinburg Police Department for comment.

Punnackal was indicted on Jan. 4 on one count of sexual battery by an authority figure and one count of sexual battery against the Honduran woman, records show. That case is ongoing.