Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil

The Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil leaves a Valley County District courtroom Monday afternoon during his trial. The priest was found not guilty Thursday of charges of first-degree sexual assault.

ORD, Neb. — A Valley County jury Thursday found the Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil, a Catholic priest, not guilty of first-degree sexual assault.

Kakkuzhiyil was accused of forcible sexual assault of an Ord woman in November 2018 in the rectory of the Catholic church in Ord. At the time, the priest was 62 and the woman was 33.

The jury returned the verdict shortly before 1 p.m. Thursday. The case went to the jury at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.

As he left the courtroom, Kakkuzhiyil said he wanted to thank God and all those who stood by him. He was defended by Grand Island attorney Mark Porto.

The jury consisted of nine women and three men.

Porto said there was “no joy in any of this.” He said he was relieved that the trial was over.

The lawyer said he hopes “everybody can move on” and put the episode behind them “in as positive a way as possible.”

The priest was placed on administrative leave in December 2018. He was pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Ord and Sacred Heart Church in Burwell.

Both parties agreed that Kakkuzhiyil performed oral sex on the woman on Nov. 22, 2018. She maintained that she was shocked by his behavior and left as soon as she awoke to discover what he was doing.

Kakkuzhiyil did not wear priestly attire during the trial, which began Monday. Eight witnesses took the stand. The woman testified, but the priest did not.

The prosecutors were George Welch and Gail VerMaas, who are both assistant Nebraska attorneys general.

“While we respect the decision reached by the jury after a lengthy deliberation in a factually difficult case, we are nevertheless disappointed for the victim and her family in the outcome,” said Suzanne Gage, a spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.

The Rev. Joseph Hanefeldt, bishop of the Grand Island Catholic Diocese, issued a statement after the trial’s conclusion.

“Due process of the law has exonerated Father 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 Father John Kakkuzhiyil has been so marred by this matter over the past several months,” Hanefeldt wrote.

A statement from the diocese in late 2018 noted that Hanefeldt offered Mass in Ord and Burwell on Dec. 1, 2018, “asking the parishioners to pray for Father Kakkuzhiyil for his continuing struggles with depression and alcoholism.”

The diocesan statement in 2018 said Kakkuzhiyil entered a drug and alcohol treatment program on Dec. 6, 2018, and was dismissed from the program on Jan. 2, 2019.

Kakkuzhiyil was ordained in 1986.

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