ORD — A Valley County jury will decide Thursday the fate of a Catholic priest who is charged with first-degree sexual assault.
The case against the Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil went to the jury at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. The panel will resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Kakkuzhiyil, 63, is accused of sexually assaulting an Ord woman, who is now 34, on Nov. 22-23, 2018. Their sexual encounter occurred in the rectory of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.
The trial began Monday in the courtroom of Valley County District Judge Karin Noakes.
Eight witnesses testified over the course of two and a half days.
The victim took the stand Tuesday, but Kakkuzhiyil never testified.
In his closing argument, one of the two prosecutors, George Welch, said the evidence demonstrates that the “defendant had one thing on his mind.”
Defense attorney Mark Porto, meanwhile, contended that the woman and the priest “got drunk and made a bad decision together.”
The encounter reportedly took place the night of Nov. 22, which was Thanksgiving, and early the following morning.
Porto said the woman became intimate with the priest partly because she was upset with her boyfriend. The defense attorney was also skeptical of the story the woman told the jury on Tuesday.
She and Kakkuzhiyil were part of a small group of people who took a five-day trip to Haiti just before the sexual encounter. They returned to Ord early on the morning of Nov. 21.
The journey to Haiti was the kind of a trip where people can bond and make a stronger connection, Porto said. After they returned, he noted, the woman sent the priest a note saying she had a “great time there.”
That doesn’t mean the woman had a definite goal in mind, he said. The woman, who works as a reporter, still needed to interview Kakkuzhiyil.
But she and the priest had a friendly, somewhat flirtatious relationship on the trip, which can lay the groundwork for “a moment of weakness,” Porto said.
The real reason the woman went to the rectory Thanksgiving night was because she was lonely, she was upset with her boyfriend and the priest was offering her some companionship, he said.
Both on the witness stand and in text messages, the woman indicated that she wanted someone to rescue her from the rectory. If she really wanted a ride that night, she could have had somebody come pick her up, Porto said. Instead, she decided to stick around and drink.
“Father John didn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to,” he said.
The woman might not have gone to the rectory intending to sleep with the priest, Porto said. But when alcohol is involved, it can lead to bad decisions. There was kissing, her clothes came off and they got carried away, at least to the point where the woman told him to stop.
Kakkuzhiyil’s attorney contends that the woman was never really that drunk that night. She knows what happened, he said, and she wasn’t entirely forthcoming in her testimony Tuesday.
She also deleted text messages she exchanged with her boyfriend during that period, Porto said.
She said she bumped her head in the bathroom of the rectory and passed out. But when getting checked over by a nurse the next day, there was no mention of a bump or a bruise, he said.
The woman and the priest are both good people who together made a bad decision, Porto said.
Kakkuzhiyil might be a priest, but “he’s human and human people like about sex, even sex that isn’t a crime,” Porto said.
Welch urged the jury to focus on what matters.
At times, the woman may have made inconsistent statements, he said. She did ride her bike home from the rectory without any problem and the encounter happened during a time when she was having trouble with her boyfriend.
Jurors might have become frustrated with the woman when she took the witness stand, Welch said. She had trouble answering questions, but that was understandable.
The trial took place because of Kakkuzhiyil, he said.
It’s not vitally important that he’s a priest, Welch said.
“That is not the state’s business,” he said.
What is important is that he committed oral sex against the woman’s will, which constitutes sexual assault, Welch said.
The evidence has shown that she never gave her consent, he said.
A lot of the story begins in Haiti, Welch said. That trip ended with a visit to a military check point, which disturbed the woman. The group also returned home to Ord late at night, but that didn’t lead to a sexual attraction.
In an interview with law enforcement, Kakkuzhiyil admitted being in his bedroom with the woman. He admitted kissing her lips, her vagina and her breasts. The priest’s DNA was found inside the crotch of her jeans.
With his mouth and tongue, the priest sexually penetrated the woman when she was incapable of resisting or understanding what was going on, Welch said.
She was unconscious when the sexual assault began, so she was not able to give her consent, he said.
Some might say the woman could have brushed him off, he said. But she didn’t want to be rude to an important member of the community and she had a deadline to meet for the story she was going to write.
Just because she was able to ride her bike home at 4:40 or 4:45 a.m. doesn’t mean she wasn’t drunk, Welch said.
She gave strong testimony that she never kissed or hugged the priest, he said.
There was no evidence or testimony that she enjoyed the oral sex, Welch said.
Her mistake, he said, was trusting the priest.
Yes, she and her boyfriend were having problems at the time, but they were working through it, Welch said.
Even if she was looking to betray her boyfriend, the scenario described by Porto doesn’t make sense, he said.
John Winter, who visited her home that morning to comfort her, would have been a more likely choice, Welch said.
Two people took the witness stand Wednesday before the two sides rested their cases.
One was Chrisanne Wickham, a sexual assault nurse who works at the Family Advocacy Network in Kearney. The other was Joe Choquette of the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, who talked about DNA.
When both sides finished presenting evidence, Porto made a motion for a directed verdict. That motion was denied by Noakes.
Before the case went to the jury Wednesday, the two alternate jurors (both women) were dismissed, leaving a panel consisting of nine women and three men.