Lawsuit: Diocese of Knoxville covered up 'horrific' child sexual abuse

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- A lawsuit filed in Knox County Circuit Court alleged that the Diocese of Knoxville covered up sexual abuse perpetrated by a priest and others connected to the church.

The lawsuit's complainant alleged that the Diocese of Knoxville, "its agents, employees and servants" hid acts of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, Father Xavier Mankel and others. Mankel died in 2017.

At the time relevant to the case, Father Mankel was the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral and Sacred Heart Cathedral School from 1987 to 1997, according to the lawsuit.

"This case involves horrific acts of childhood sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated on the Plaintiff by Catholic Priest, Father Xavier Mankel and others and covered up by the Diocese of Knoxville," the suit said. It also said the alleged victim was a minor living in Blount County at the time of the abuse.

In 1991, when the alleged victim was an altar boy and a fourth-grade student, the suit alleged he began to experience inappropriate contact from Father Mankel.

"Father Mankel told him a dirty joke and pulled him closer...groping continued for two and a half years and escalated to fondling, grooming, and other sexual activity between Father Mankel and the (alleged victim), " the suit alleged.

According to the suit, Father Mankel told the alleged victim it was part of Father Mankel's "Love Therapy" which evolved into "Touch Therapy."

The alleged victim said he, "was told touching was supposed to help him work through the physical, spiritual, emotional and mental pain caused by those who loved him most."

The alleged victim said he eventually sought help from his gym coach at Sacred Heart school, who he claimed told him not to tell anyone what he told her. The alleged victim said he was later called to a meeting with the coach and Father Mankel, when he said Father Mankel told him, "What's this I hear about you spreading lies about me?"

According to the lawsuit, the sexual abuse continued at the hands of Bishop O'Connell. The alleged victim said Father Mankel allowed other visiting priests to abuse him too.

O'Connell, according to the lawsuit, publicly acknowledged inappropriate conduct with minors and resigned in 2002.

While a student at Sacred Heart School, the alleged victim claimed a music teacher touched him inappropriately during a guitar lesson.

The alleged victim did not file a police report until August 2018.

The lawsuit, filed July 18, 2019, asked for a jury to award fair compensatory and punitive damages.

On July 23, the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) held a conference outside of the Diocese of Knoxville to discuss topics mentioned in the suit. Michael Coode and a relative of Mankel was present, as well as Susan Vance, the leader of SNAP.

Coode said he is a sexual abuse victim by priests, he said.

"I'm sorry for the abuse [the victim] suffered and the troubling years he's had to endure since the abuse. I'm proud of him coming forward. Believe me, it's hard to do."

Coode stated that he has tried to speak with both Mankel, before his death, and Bishop Stika. "I tried to get him to talk to me there, and he wouldn't. I've written him letters. I've written Bishop Stika letters, asking him to intervene, and he wouldn't."

Coode went on to say that his abuse happened in a time where victims "wouldn't be believed."

"I want to give my support to [the victim] because things are not going to be easy, believe me, for him. You know, it's hard to get up and do this, but it's really hard to get up and be in a court of law and try to defend your position. I hope that some of those folks around Father Mankel in the church would come and truthfully testify," he added.

Also on July 23, the Diocese of Knoxville released a statement indicating it issued a letter from Bishop Stika to clergy, school leaders, and staff on July 19, and distributed it to the media on Sunday, July 21.

The statement read, "To the extent of its available knowledge, the diocese has listed on its website, through postings from the Diocese of Nashville and the Diocese of Knoxville, priests credibly accused of abuse of a minor, including the location(s) of service of that priest whether the abuse occurred there or not. The Diocese of Knoxville maintains and abides by a rigorous policy and set of procedures to report allegations of sexual abuse. All of this information is easily available on our website, dioknox.org, and listed under Report Sexual Abuse...The Diocese of Knoxville remains as committed to finding the truth whenever allegations of sexual abuse are brought forward and we ask that anyone with knowledge of suspected abuse to report their suspicions to law enforcement and our diocesan victims assistance coordinator."

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