Jury finds priest not guilty in Ord sexual assault trial

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ORD, Neb. (KSNB) - The jury in Valley County District Court has found Fr. John Kakkuzhiyil not guilty of charges that he sexually assaulted a woman at this home in November, 2018.

The jury returned it's verdict Thursday afternoon after three days of testimony that concluded Wednesday afternoon. They deliberated about seven hours total before delivering the not guilty verdict.

"I am grateful to God, and for all the people that stood by me, and believed in me and prayed for me," said Fr. Kakkuzhiyil.

During the trial, his accuser alleged she went to the priest's home at the catholic parish in Ord in an attempt to interview him for a project she was working on. The two had previously been part of a group visiting a parish in Haiti. She said that while there, Fr. Kakkuzhiyil served her numerous drinks and at one point in the night she woke up in a bed next to the priest as he was performing a sex act on her.

Kakkuzhiyil's defense attorney contended that the action was consensual.

Kakkuzhiyil did not testify during the trial.

The jury had deliberated for three hours Wednesday afternoon before breaking for the day, returning to the courtroom Thursday morning for several more hours of deliberation before rendering their verdict. During that time, the jury requested a review of video and evidence presented during the trial.

Had he been convicted, Kakkuzhiyil could have faced up to 50 years in prison.

Mark Porto, defense attorney, said this was a sad case, and there's no joy in it. He said he's glad it's over, and hopes everyone can move forward in a positive way.

Thursday Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt issued this statement on the website of the Diocese of Grand Island: "Due process of the law has exonerated Fr. John Kakkuzhiyil of the charges that have been filed against him. I am deeply saddened at the events revealed in this trial. My heart is heavy for all who have been involved in this matter. Furthermore, I am saddened that the priesthood of Fr. John Kakkuzhiyil has been so marred by this matter over the past several months.

I pray that all who have been affected by these events will acknowledge their thoughts and feelings about what has taken place in this trial and relate them to the Lord in prayer, to receive consolation and strength. This difficult matter has shaken the faith of many good people. May the light of Christ shatter the darkness this has caused and lead us all in the ways of justice and mercy and love."
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TRIAL DAY 3

Both prosecution and defense rested on the third day of the trial and the jury began its decision making process at about 2:30 Wednesday afternoon.

During closing arguments the special prosecutor from the Nebraska Attorney General's office argued that the woman did not give the priest consent for the sex act and was unconscious while it was happening.

The priest's defense attorney argued that the woman was cheating on her boyfriend, that the act with the priest was consensual and that she claimed she had been assaulted because she was ashamed.

Early testimony on day three of the trial began with the state calling a sexual assault nurse examiner to the stand.

The nurse testified she performed the sexual assault kit on the accuser. She says the accuser had an injury that, in her experience, was consistent with sexual assault. The nurse examiner did also say the injury could have happened in a consensual encounter, but that she felt that was unlikely.

The state also presented evidence from DNA analyst who testified that DNA consistent with that from the priest was found on the accuser's jeans. The analyst says that can't show how the DNA got there, only that it was present. He also said DNA analysis does not prove or disprove consent.

He was the last person to testify in the trial. Fr. Kakkuzhiyil was not called to the stand.
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TRIAL DAY 2:

The accuser in an alleged sexual assault by former Ord priest Fr. John Kakkuzhiyil has taken the stand in the second day trial in Valley County District Court.

In early testimony, the victim detailed traveling with a mission trip organized by the Greeley, NE parish to a sister parish in Haiti. The victim was there to document the trip, during which she planned to interview Fr. Kakkuzhiyil, who was also on the trip. She said she tried to do the interview during the trip, but said she was not able to so.

She went on to detail that Fr. Kakkuzhiyil invited her on Thanksgiving night to the Ord parish rectory, where he lived, for dinner and to finish the interview. She said he asked to her to pack a bag before coming over, and to wear a red dress. Phone records presented at trial indicate she didn't respond to those messages.

She said she tried to start the interview multiple times, but he would keep changing the subject, telling her he wanted to show her his living quarters.

The woman said that the defendant repeatedly filled her drink glass with Crown Royal. She testified she didn't tell him to stop. At some point, she said she went to the bathroom, where she fell and hit her head.

She then testified the next thing she remembers is waking up in a bed next to Fr. Kakkuzhiyil as he was performing a sex act on her. She said she jumped up, grabbed her clothes and fled from the rectory. She described Fr. Kakkuzhiyil handing her cell phone to her before she left, which he pulled out from between the mattress and box springs.

When asked why should would drink with the priest, she said, "I thought I was in a safe space."

The defense showed text messages between the woman and her friend, John Winter, from the time she was at the priest's home, and that she did not express distress in those messages.

Winter was one of the first people the accuser told about the incident. He testified that he went to her home less than 24 hours after the incident to console her.

"When I got there she was actually behind the house. She wasn't in the house yet. She was behind the house. She came, and she was still very upset. Shaking, crying. Just very upset," Winter said.

After she calmed down, Winter said she described her account of what happened that night into the early morning.

"She said that, when she came to, she grabbed what she could, got her clothes, threw them on quick. She was on a bike and rode it back to her house," Winter said.

Winter said the accuser never told him she was interviewing the priest that night. He said he recalled her saying she was going to meet with him for dinner and drinks.

The defense argued the accuser got into a fight with her boyfriend at the time the morning of the alleged sexual assault. Phone records indicate she deleted messages between herself and the boyfriend after law enforcement told her not to delete anything on her phone.

The defense said she told an official in an interview after the incident that she didn't want to be alone that night, so she decided to stay at the priest's home.

Earlier on Tuesday, the prosecution called an investigator with the Nebraska Attorney General's office. The investigator testified about extracting records from the accuser's phone.

Phone records showed there was communication between the defendant and the victim the day of the alleged assault, as well as the day after. In the text messages shown in court Tuesday, there was no mention of an interview between the defendant and accuser.

The prosecution also showed body camera footage of law enforcement interviewing the priest at his home after the alleged assault. In the video, the priest initially said there was a naked woman in his room, but nothing happened. After more questioning, he said he did perform a sex act on the woman, and "thought she was awake."

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TRIAL DAY 1:

The trial began Monday.

The prosecution started with opening statements Monday afternoon. They said the victim was sexually assaulted after the priest invited her to the rectory on Thanksgiving to finish an interview. The defense countered, saying there are text messages between the two that prove it was a consensual encounter. The defense also said the victim cheated on her boyfriend with the priest.

The first witness of the trial, Sheriff Casey Hurlburt, Valley County Sheriff's Department, took the stand Monday. He described his interaction with the victim, which is a few days after she said the assault occurred.

"(She) contacted me via Facebook and would like to me to get a hold of her, and would like me to get a hold of her. That's when I contacted her. She told me that she was sexually assaulted by Father John," Hurlburt said. "She was very emotional, crying a lot."

The prosecution also submitted a tapped phone call into evidence between Kakkuzhiyil and the victim, in which she questioned him about that night.

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Kakkuzhiyil was arrested in early January 2019 after a month-long investigation by the state patrol into a claim by an Ord woman who said the priest raped her at his home in late November. Court records indicate that the woman also claims Kakkuzhiyil gave her a couple of drinks beforehand, that she blacked out, and when she awoke she was naked and the priest was performing a sex act.

Kakkuzhiyil pled not guilty in Valley County District Court in Ord on February 18, 2019.

If found guilty on the felony sexual assault charge, Kakkuzhiyil could get up to 50 years in prison.

Up until late 2018, Kakkuzhiyil was parish priest in Ord and Burwell.

In a January 2019 statement, Grand Island Diocese Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt said he informed parishioners in Ord and Burwell December First that the priest was struggling with alcoholism and depression.

On December 6, 2018, Kakkuzhiyil entered a drug and alcohol treatment program at CHI Health St. Francis in Grand Island. Hanefeldt put Kakkuzhiyil on administrative leave December 15 when the bishop learned that the State Patrol was investigating the priest. Kakkuzhiyil was dismissed from the treatment program on Wednesday, January 2, 2019. Hanefeldt then learned that the priest had been arrested by the State Patrol.

This is the full statement from the Grand Island Diocese:

"Bishop Hanefeldt has learned today, January 2, 2019, that Fr. John Kakkuzhiyil, a priest of the Diocese of Grand Island, has been placed under arrest by the Nebraska State Patrol in Grand Island and charged with first-degree sexual assault of an adult.

Most recently Fr. Kakkuzhiyil served as pastor of our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Ord and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Burwell. On December 1, 2018, Bishop Hanefeldt offered Mass in Ord and Burwell asking the parishioners to pray for Father Kakkuzhiyil for his continuing struggles with depression and alcoholism.

On December 6, 2018 Fr. Kakkuzhiyil entered the CHI St. Francis Drug and Alcohol Treatment Program and was dismissed from there on January 2, 2019.

When Bishop Hanefeldt learned there was an ongoing investigation by the Nebraska State Patrol regarding Fr. Kakkuzhiyil, he placed Fr. Kakkuzhiyil on administrative leave December 15, 2018. Pending the outcome of the investigation and treatment, the administrative leave remains in effect.

Court records indicate that a Valley County District Judge issued a protection order against Kakkuzhiyil after the woman reported the sexual assault.