Anglican Watch

Faced with transfer, key witness in sex abuse lawsuit against diocese leaves his parish


Ed: Although this case occurs in the Catholic church, the allegations of retaliation are common in the Episcopal church, as are the allegations of efforts to discredit victims.

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

April 27, 2023

By Tyler Whetstone

Oak Ridge pastor is a witness in assault suit

A priest who is a witness in the lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville suddenly left his Oak Ridge parish earlier this week after he was told he was likely to be transferred to another parish, Knox News has learned.

The Rev. Brent Shelton of St. Mary Oak Ridge left April 25, Bishop Richard Stika announced in a letter to the parish this week. Shelton left “without my knowledge and permission,” Stika wrote.

“On Monday, a few days after I asked Father Brent Shelton to consider a new assignment, he asked me for permission to take a leave of absence from his role as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge,” Stika wrote. “This request came as part of the annual review of all parish needs and how to address many of our parishes that don’t have pastors.”

Shelton is one of two priests who had documents subpoenaed for the lawsuit brought by a former church employee who has accused a former seminarian of raping him. Church watchdogs said Shelton’s pending removal was retaliation for standing up to Stika in recent years.

“Will the actions of Bishop Stika in Father Brent Shelton’s departure be seen as retaliation? Yes, I think so,” said Susan Vance, the leader of the Tennessee chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Shelton was willing to testify against Stika and reveal Stika’s defamation of John Doe.

“When the truth comes out and Shelton’s side of the story is told, it will be shocking to the people of East Tennessee.”

Knox News could not immediately reach Shelton for comment.

Jim Wogan, a spokesperson for the diocese, declined to comment on the reason for Shelton’s planned transfer, but said it is not unusual for priests to be moved and those moves are based on parish needs. For instance, he said, there are four parishes in the Knoxville diocese with a vacancy for a priest. Wogan said Shelton’s proposed reassignment was at one of the parishes without a priest.

Because of the number of vacancies, Wogan said, he expects 2023 to be a “very active” year for priest reassignments. He also said priests typically stay at a parish for 6 to 12 years. Shelton had been at St. Mary’s since 2015, he said.

A priest within the diocese said losing Shelton is a blow to the faith community. Knox News is not naming him because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

“We have lost a proven pastor,” the priest told Knox News. “And that has to raise questions when you lose a proven pastor, a priest of 22 years, who has been very effective, in my perspective, at St. Mary’s School there in Oak Ridge.”

Shelton and two other Oak Ridge pastors received the 2016 Community Service Award from the NAACP for their work in promoting a “Community Matters” public forum.”

“My prayer is that Father Shelton will soon return to the diocese,” Stika said in his announcement. “I ask that you join me in those prayers.”

Knoxville diocese is facing two lawsuits

John Doe: The lawsuit asserts the diocese tried to discredit the man, a former church employee, and did not properly investigate his sexual abuse allegations. Knox News is not naming him because he said he is a victim of sexual abuse. Knox News has independently confirmed Stika personally interfered with the investigation, removing an investigator who was asking too many questions.

The lawsuit says the rape occurred in 2019 when John Doe was a musician at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, and when the seminarian worked as an assistant to Stika, a job that involved travel to different parishes. John Doe contends he was subject to a pattern of grooming by the seminarian, who John Doe says raped him on Feb. 5, 2019.

Jane Doe: The lawsuit filed by Jane Doe, a pseudonym to protect the identity of the woman, asserts the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal, of Gatlinburg’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church, groped her while he counseled her after the death of the father of her infant.

The woman, a Honduran asylum seeker living in Gatlinburg, says she went to the police soon after the assault, but it took until Jan. 4 for Punnackal to be indicted by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery. He was removed from ministry two days after the indictment, a diocesan spokesperson said.

The board’s bylaws require officials to immediately contact any adult who says they were sexually exploited “to offer assurance of the concern of the diocese and its commitment to hear and respond in an appropriate way to the accusations.”

No one contacted Jane Doe, her lawsuit asserts.

Instead, members of the board contacted police investigators, first to tell them the woman had engaged in a consensual sexual encounter with Punnackal. An investigator hired by the church shared documentation with police that says the woman was not in the United States legally.

Tyler Whetstone is a Knox News investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Email tyler.whetstone@ Twitter @tyler_ whetstone.

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