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A new lawsuit alleges that the Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee did not act to discipline or remove a priest for nearly two years after the priest was accused of sexually assaulting a grieving parishioner.

Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville speaks to elementary school students. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.


The lawsuit comes as Bishop Rick Stika faces litigation and a Vatican investigation over other charges of covering up sexual abuse allegations in the Knoxville diocese.

Fr Antony Punnackal, CMI, was indicted in January, on charges that in February 2020 he sexually assaulted a grieving parishioner who had just lost her husband.

According to a lawsuit filed in March but sealed until last week, the complainant - who speaks almost no English - was in a state of severe mental distress when she went to see her pastor on February 17, 2020, just after her husband was killed. 

Her lawsuit alleges that the priest “fondled her breasts and buttocks” in a room the priest locked after she sat down with him for spiritual counsel, at St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where Punnackal was then serving as pastor.

The suit alleges that the priest targeted the woman because of her emotional vulnerability and because she is not a proficient speaker of English. 

Punnackal was not removed from ministry until after he was indicted in January, almost two years after the alleged assault. He is still listed as pastor on the St. Mary’s parish website.

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The lawsuit claims the Knoxville diocese was informed about the sexual assault shortly after it happened, when the woman contacted law enforcement. Bishop Stika did not pursue any canonical inquiry into the allegation or make any efforts to restrict the priest’s ministry, according to the suit. 

The suit alleges that Punnackal eventually admitted to the sexual assault, but was permitted to remain in pastoral ministry even after he made that admission.

But Punnackal told a grand jury that while he was alone with the woman, he did not assault her. 

Stika’s failure to remove the priest from ministry exacerbated the alleged victim’s severe emotional distress, according to the lawsuit. The complaint says the victim has spent time as an inpatient for mental health treatment, and has suffered from serious psychological depression, leaving her unable to care for her children. 

The Knoxville diocese says it is not able to comment on pending litigation.

Punnackal, for his part, is a friar of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a Syro-Malabar Catholic religious institute mostly active in Southern India. The priest came to Knoxville at Stika’s invitation, according to the diocesan newspaper, after several years in ministry in the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas. 

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Stika and the Knoxville diocese were sued Feb. 22 for an unrelated allegation, namely that the bishop impeded an investigation into an allegation a seminarian raped a parish employee, and helped to cover up the allegation.

Stika told The Pillar last year that he removed a diocesan investigator looking into the rape allegation, and that he “knew in [his] heart” the seminarian was innocent.

The suit also charges that Stika has claimed the seminarian, Wojciech Sobczuk, was himself sexually assaulted by the lawsuit’s plaintiff. The suit characterizes that claim as an “egregious” defamation of a rape victim.

In another unrelated case, a Tennessee woman told The Pillar in March that Stika bullied her when she reported a priest’s grooming behavior to the Knoxville diocese in 2017.

While the woman said the diocese should have taken seriously charges that a priest was inappropriately engaging with minors, she says Stika told her she had “ruined a priest’s life.”

The Vatican last year commissioned Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville to investigate allegation against Stika, after the Congregation for Bishops received approximately ten complaints about the bishop’s behavior. While Kurtz has filed a report with Vatican officials, no action has yet been announced. 

For his part, Stika maintains that he’s been misunderstood — the subject of a gossip campaign by a few discontented priests and some activists, which was amplified by salacious media reporting from The Pillar.

Accusing The Pillar last year of reporting “fake news,” the bishop promised that he would “sue your ass” over The Pillar’s news reporting on the allegations against him. No lawsuit followed.

Subsequently, Stika invited The Pillar to Knoxville for hours of interviews, and encouraged priests of the diocese to speak with The Pillar’s reporter.

Stika has told priests in the Knoxville diocese that Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre has told him the Vatican’s investigation will resolve in his favor, but Pierre has not responded to questions from The Pillar about that claim.

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