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

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A jury has found a Catholic priest in Tennessee not guilty of sexual battery against a woman who was a church member.

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 battery.

The charges centered on allegations from February 2020 regarding Punnackal's actions toward the parishioner. A lawsuit by the woman remains active.

Punnackal has denied any allegations of assault. His attorney Travis McCarter told news outlets in a statement that the priest is a “terrific human being and we are glad to finally be able to show the world that he’s innocent of these accusations.”

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

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

"This case is now stronger than it was a week ago,” said Andrew Fels, an attorney for the woman.

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

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

Owens said the diocese won't comment on the lawsuit “until its fate can be decided.”