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Judge denies protective order request in Knoxville Diocese lawsuit

The Knoxville Diocese wanted to keep private documents gathered as it prepares for trial.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A Knox County judge said Friday he wasn't ready to grant a protective order sought by the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville to keep confidential documents gathered in a lawsuit filed by a former church musician.

Knox County Circuit Court Judge Jerome Melson told lawyers for the diocese and Bishop Richard Stika in a hearing that they hadn't presented convincing reasons to make the move.

The musician, who worked in the diocese from 2015-19, filed suit in 2022, alleging the defendants failed to take appropriate action after a seminarian from Poland raped him in February 2019. He also alleges Stika defamed him.

The diocese argues the two men were friends. The bishop has portrayed the musician as the aggressor.

Attorney Matthew Pietsch, representing the defendants, told Melson they were not seeking a gag order. He also noted recent and ongoing publicity about the lawsuit.

Rather, Pietsch said, the defense was seeking to find a mutually agreeable method or mechanism for keeping out of the public eye sensitive internal documents that are gathered as lawyers prepare for trial.

Such material would include confidential communications from the Diocesan Review Board that looked into the alleged rape and documents and information collected from private meetings among priests in the diocese.

Some of those records already have been shared online and reviewed by media entities including WBIR. Several priests also have met with WBIR to express their concerns over Stika's leadership and handling of the seminarian's case.

Credit: WBIR
Knox County Circuit Court Judge Jerome Melson

The diocese said this week it can't comment because of ongoing litigation.

Representing the former musician, attorney Patrick Thronson said his client opposed a protective order to sharply limit circulation of potential evidence. The public has an interest in what happens in this lawsuit, he said.

"This would result in a broad swath of this case being filed under seal outside public scrutiny," he said.

The judge left open the possibility he could revisit such a request in the future. This was the defense's request for a protective order. 

No trial date has been set yet.

The former musician filed his lawsuit, first as John Doe, in February 2022. The court later agreed with the defense that he should file it under his real name.

Credit: WBIR
The Knoxville cathedral, seat of the bishop.

WBIR isn't naming the musician because he alleges he's a sex crime victim. WBIR isn't naming the former seminarian, who moved to St. Louis, because he hasn't been charged with a crime.

The former musician hasn't named the seminarian as a defendant.

The case has been covered by the investigative online organization The Pillar, the National Catholic Reporter and the News Sentinel among other entities.

A Honduran woman has filed a separate complaint in federal court against the diocese, priest Antony Punnackal and the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate.

The woman alleges Punnackal fondled her in February 2020 in a room at a Gatlinburg church. Punnackal is awaiting sexual battery charges in Sevier County Circuit Court.

The woman alleges the diocese tried to discredit her and coerce her into dropping her claims against Punnackal. He faces trial in September.

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