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Alleged victim files second lawsuit against local Catholic priest

The woman alleges the priest fondled her in February 2020. An attorney for the priest said his client maintains his innocence.
Chapel in the Diocese of Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A woman who alleges a Catholic priest in Gatlinburg sexually battered her in 2020 has filed a second lawsuit against the Knoxville diocese and the priest himself.

The "Jane Doe" plaintiff filed the complaint Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. Earlier this year an attorney on her behalf filed a lawsuit in Sevier County that was subsequently non-suited.

As a result of the woman's accusations, Antony D. Punnackal faces indictment on two counts of sexual battery in Sevier County Criminal Court. Lawyers have asked for a hearing Jan. 24, 2023, to address motions in the case, and the criminal case is set for trial Feb. 15.

Named as defendants in the federal suit besides Punnackal, who was a priest at St. Mary's Church in Gatlinburg, and the diocese is the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate.

Attorney Travis McCarter, who represents the priest in the civil and criminal actions, said his client continues to maintain his innocence.

RELATED: Gatlinburg pastor accused of sexual battery

The woman, a Honduras native who speaks little English, alleges Punnackal fondled her behind closed doors during a one-on-one meeting Feb. 17, 2020, and had intentions of going further.  She sought time for grief counseling with Punnackal after the father of one of her children was killed in Honduras just days before.

According to the complaint, the priest fondled her breasts and buttocks. She tried to rebuff him and leave but the door was locked, the complaint states.

She was seeking asylum in the United States at the time and feared he might try to use the legal process against her, the lawsuit states. The woman immigrated to the United States in 2019. 

Eventually, she claims, the priest unlocked the door and she was able to leave.

The lawsuit alleges the diocese or its representatives subsequently sought to discredit her and intimidate her. It seeks a minimum of $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The Diocese of Knoxville released a statement about the filing Tuesday night. It is below.

"The diocese was made aware of the filing Monday morning. 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. Father Punnackal is represented by his own attorney. He was taken out of active ministry in the diocese on Jan. 6, 2022."

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