Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil

The Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil leaves the Valley County District Courtroom Monday afternoon. The priest has been accused of committing first-degree sexual assault on Nov. 22, 2018, in the rectory of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ord. At the time, he was also pastor of Sacred Heart in Burwell. (Independent/Jeff Bahr)

ORD — 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 with the verdict shortly before 1 p.m. Thursday. The case went to the jury at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. Deliberations concluded between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Wednesday, and resumed at 9 a.m. Thursday.

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 was relieved that the trial was over, he said.

The lawyer 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 pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Burwell.

Both parties agreed that Kakkuzhiyil performed oral sex on the woman on Nov. 22 and 23, 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, director of communications 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 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,” Hanefeldt wrote.

“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,” the bishop concluded.

A statement from the diocese late in 2018 noted 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.”

Kakkuzhiyill was arrested by the Nebraska State Patrol.

The diocesan statement in 2018 said Kakkuzhiyil entered the CHI St. Francis 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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