Tennessee Priest Accused of Sexually Assaulting Mentally Disabled Woman During Grief Counselling Session

A woman who claims she was sexually assaulted by a Gatlinburg priest at a grief counseling session has filed a lawsuit against the priest and the Diocese of Knoxville.

As reported by WATE, Father Antony Devassey Punnackal, faces two charges connected with his alleged sexual contact with a victim whom court describes in the indictments as "mentally defective and/or mentally incapacitated."

Punnackal has been suspended from active ministry, the Knoxville Diocese said on Friday. He is listed online as the pastor of Saint Mary Catholic Church in Gatlinburg. He celebrated his 25th anniversary in priesthood in August 2017, according to this article.

A Sevier County Grand Jury handed down a pair of indictments against the priest in January. Punnackal is charged with one count of sexual battery by an authority figure and one count of sexual battery, according to the indictment. Punnackal has confessed to the sexual assault, the lawsuit claims.

Punnackal Allegedly Fondled the Victim's Breasts, Buttocks

Father Antony Devassey Punnackal
Father Antony Devassey Punnackal Twitter

The victim, identified only as "Jane Doe," went to the church for emotional support and guidance. A bilingual assistant set up the meeting and left Jane Doe alone in a room with the priest, the lawsuit alleges.

"Defendant Punnackal locked the doors to the room and began fondling Plaintiff's breast and buttocks," the lawsuit claims. Without a translator, the plaintiff was "effectively incapable" of direct spoke communication with the priest. The lawsuit claims the woman escaped after Punnackal unlocked the doors.

Lawsuit Alleges Punnackal Targeted Victim

The lawsuit claims Punnackal selected this person "as a target for sexual predation because he knew that she is not English language proficient and also knew that she was emotional vulnerable" due to a recent event.

Punnackal is described as "the spiritual authority she turned to for support in a time of great personal crises." The plaintiff was "deeply traumatized" and was hospitalized for depression following the assault, the lawsuit notes.

The civil lawsuit filed in Sevier County Circuit Court names Punnackal and the Diocese as defendants for sexual assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and negligent hiring, retention and supervision.

The Knoxville Diocese declined to comment further, saying it is "inappropriate" to comment on an ongoing legal matter. The plaintiff is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as determined by a jury.