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Central Nebraska priest, 62, charged with sexual assault after meeting with woman in rectory

January 6, 2019

The 62-year-old Catholic priest in central Nebraska insisted that a woman conduct a business meeting on Thanksgiving Day at his place, a church rectory where he lived in Ord.

He insisted on pouring her an alcoholic drink. And when she awoke hours later with his face in her genitals, the priest she hardly knew but still trusted, a man three decades older, insisted on this: that he loved her.

This is according to a protection order that the woman, who is in her early 30s, sought and received Nov. 27, several days after that Nov. 22 visit to the rectory. Her account led authorities to arrest and charge the priest with first-degree sexual assault.

It’s a charge that carries a penalty of up to 50 years in prison.

Now that priest, the Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil, is being held at the Valley County Jail in Ord. Bail was set Friday at $150,000. Kakkuzhiyil would have to post 10 percent, or $15,000, to be released.

On Friday, the priest’s attorney, Mark Porto, of Grand Island, said he doubted that Kakkuzhiyil would be able to do that. An initial court appearance has been scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Valley County Courthouse.

Porto noted that his client turned himself into the Nebraska State Patrol on Wednesday.

Kakkuzhiyil had been undergoing inpatient treatment at CHI Health St. Francis, a drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility in Grand Island, according to the Diocese of Grand Island, which covers all of Nebraska west of the Omaha and Lincoln dioceses.

Kakkuzhiyil is an Indian-born U.S. citizen whose service in Nebraska, according to the diocese, began in 2007 when he was named associate pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Grand Island.

Subsequent assignments were pastor of St. Nicholas in Valentine and St. Mary in Nenzel (2008); pastor of Holy Rosary in Alliance and St. Bridget in Hemingford (2014); and pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ord and Sacred Heart in Burwell (2016).

Angie Fisher, a diocesan spokeswoman, said the diocese had not received prior complaints about Kakkuzhiyil.

A search of Nebraska court records revealed no prior record, except for a speeding ticket in 2007.

Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt was unavailable for comment Friday; he’s in Illinois attending a weeklong bishops’ retreat to pray about the clergy sexual abuse crisis that is rocking the Roman Catholic Church.

Reports from Pennsylvania and Illinois have given accounts of clergy sexual abuse of children and cover-up.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office is investigating claims of Catholic clergy abuse and has requested records from all three dioceses.

In an interview with The World-Herald last month, Bishop Hanefeldt said that a diocesan attorney had found no substantiated claims of abuse of minors but a handful of questionable cases that he turned over to the state.

This claim of abuse was reported to authorities on Nov. 26. On Dec. 1, Hanefeldt asked parishioners at the churches in Ord and Burwell, where Kakkuzhiyil served, to pray for the pastor and “his continuing struggles with depression and alcoholism,” according to the diocesan statement.

On Dec. 6, Kakkuzhiyil entered the St. Francis treatment program. On Dec. 15, the diocese placed the priest on administrative leave, which the diocese statement notes remains in effect “pending the outcome of the investigation and treatment.”

Kayla Clark, the newly sworn-in Valley County attorney, will prosecute the case.

In describing the charge in a petition filed Friday in Valley County Court, she wrote that Kakkuzhiyil subjected a person “to sexual penetration without the consent of the victim.”

On his client’s behalf, Porto said: “He turned himself in and is trying to take care of this right away.”

In the protection order, the victim said she blacked out and awoke in horror to an assault in progress. She said that Kakkuzhiyil put her hand on his penis and asked her to “put me inside you.”

“I freaked out, jumped off the bed, begged for my clothes, saying repeatedly, ‘This is not OK.’ ”

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