GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — A Catholic priest has been acquitted of sexual misconduct charges filed against him last year while he was working in Gatlinburg, Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn confirmed.

A jury found Father Antony Devassey Punnackal, who had served St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, not guilty of one count of sexual battery by an authority figure and one count of sexual battery on Thursday.

The lawsuit filed in early 2022 alleged the priest, “fondled the plaintiff’s breast and buttocks” when she was alone with Punnackal during a grief counseling session. The plaintiff was “deeply traumatized” and was hospitalized for depression following the assault, according to the lawsuit.

Punnackal was suspended from active ministry by the Diocese of Knoxville following the allegations.

A civil lawsuit, which names Punnackal and the Diocese as defendants, for sexual battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence, remains ongoing.

The Diocese of Knoxville released the following statement on Friday.

“With great relief, I want you to know that a jury in Sevier County has found Father Antony Punnackal NOT guilty of all criminal charges brought against him last year. 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.

Back when Father Punnackal was first charged, the diocese said that we would not comment on the case at that time and that we trusted the legal process. We remain committed to that trust. Soon, we hope to hear more about a civil lawsuit brought against the diocese in this matter. We will refrain from commenting on it until its fate can be decided.

A final note on Father Punnackal: His ministry to the people of the diocese, and especially to those at St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg where he most recently served, has been a tremendous gift. The decision to remove him from active ministry was difficult but necessary. No matter what he decides for his future, his vision and work, especially helping the people of Gatlinburg in their recovery from the 2016 wildfires, and building a new parish family life center, will remain lasting symbols of his work here. Please keep Father Punnackal in your prayers.”

Father Doug Owens
Delegate to the Apostolic Administrator