Big Trouble in Little Knoxville: Misconduct cases bring systemic, cultural weaknesses into sharp focus

Catholic Herald [London, England]

June 7, 2021

By Christopher Altieri

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who shall watch over the Watchers? That is just one of the questions raised by the complex and deeply troubling circumstances of the Diocese of Knoxville, only some of which have been reported.

The Catholic Herald has learned significant details regarding several cases of clerical misconduct and mismanagement in Knoxville.

The details of one case in particular involve senior Church leaders in the US and abroad, and raise questions regarding oft-cited structural weaknesses in the Church’s new “metropolitan” system for investigating abuse and coverup allegations.

The overarching story of trouble in Knoxville is really the result of convergence.

At least two discrete stories, each with its own set of native complexities, are interwoven with one another and with the structural weaknesses in Pope Francis’s own highly publicized reform of the Church’s modes and methods of investigating and trying abuse and coverup allegations.

Those two stories both regard the ways in which diocesan leadership handled misconduct claims, and are at the center of the trouble in Knoxville. Here is how they break down, each on its own.

A favorite seminarian

A Polish man, who was a seminarian of the Diocese of Knoxville, is accused of grave misconduct.

Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville has faced serious scrutiny for his handling of the allegations against the seminarian. He has characterized the behavior of the seminarian as amounting to “boundary violations” that he attributed to “cultural differences” between continental European and American modes of personal social interaction.

The Catholic Herald has obtained documents that show that the allegations against the seminarian include sexual assault against an adult male. The Herald has confirmed the identities of both the victim-accuser and the seminarian. The former was reluctant to speak, citing concerns over possible legal action. The Herald’s attempts to reach the accused for comment have so far proven unsuccessful.

The Diocese of Knoxville declined to answer the Herald’s questions regarding the seminarian’s case. Diocesan spokesman Jim Wogan said he is “not aware of any formal investigation into Bishop Stika or the diocese by Rome.”

A native of Poland, the seminarian claimed in a diocesan podcast interview that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop emeritus of Krakow and longtime secretary of Pope St. John Paul II, encouraged him to go to Knoxville for priestly formation.

The podcast episode no longer appears on the diocesan website, but the Catholic Herald saved an audio copy before it disappeared.

“When Cardinal Dziwisz, who is a very close friend of my pastor in Poland, [and] also knew my family – he [Card. Dziwisz] was visiting the Knoxville diocese when there was the dedication of the new cathedral,” a $42 million project that has reportedly put the diocese under some financial strain.

“Then, he came to Orchard Lake,” where the Sts. Cyril and Methodius formation house is located. Sts. Cyril and Methodius is a place dedicated to the formation of foreign-born and especially Polish clerics and religious for service in the United States.

“[H]e told me, like, ‘They need a Polish priest, they need a Polish seminarian, so you should go there,’ and I told him: ‘Well, I don’t think so,’ and I already had a proposition from Miami before, and I was thinking, ‘No, no, not Knoxville,’ and a couple of days later, my phone started ringing.”

The call came at about 8pm, the seminarian recalled, and was from a Knoxville number.

“I answered the phone, and on the other side was [a voice, saying]: ‘Hello, this is Bishop Stika from the Diocese of Knoxville. How are you doing?’ I was a little shocked.”

The seminarian went on to recount how Bishop Stika invited him to come to Knoxville for Easter 2018, and the rest is history.

Through a spokesman, Cardinal Dziwisz told the Catholic Herald he knows the seminarian only slightly, and only met him “by chance” during the Knoxville cathedral consecration, which took place on March 8th, 2018. Easter that year was on April 1st.

“He does not know [the seminarian’s] origins in Poland,” Cardinal Dziwisz’s email reply to queries from the Herald stated. “He [Card. Dziwisz] did not support [the seminarian’s] studies in the USA.” Dziwisz acknowledged that “occasional meetings” took place, “always on the occasion of the visit of Bishop Richard Stika.”

Bishop Stika brought in former TVA inspector general George Prosser to investigate the allegations against the seminarian, but quickly dismissed him.

“George shows up at the chancery,” Stika told the investigative news outlet Pillar Catholic, “he starts asking all these questions about [the seminarian] to people who had no idea who he was and what he was doing.” Prosser declined our invitation to answer questions for the story or discuss his involvement in the case, citing professional confidentiality.

Bishop Stika described Prosser as “75 years old,” and “past his prime.” Stika has defended his handling of the seminarian’s case. He told the Pillar he has “nothing to hide.”

Be that as it may, the investigator with whom Bishop Stika replaced Prosser, former police officer and Knoxville review board member Chris Manning, only reviewed the complaint and interviewed the seminarian. According to the Pillar, Manning heard from other members of the review board that the alleged victim would not want to participate in the investigation, and made no subsequent attempt to contact him.

A negligence suit and a potential conflict of interest

The second case turns on a civil negligence lawsuit filed by a woman, Celeste Arnone, who had a sexual relationship with a priest, Fr. Michael Sweeney. Sweeney admitted to the relationship when Church authorities specifically questioned him about it in 2005.

As a matter of policy, the Catholic Herald does not name victims of sexual misconduct. Mrs. Arnone gave the Herald her express permission, in view of the public nature of her story and her lawsuit. She declined the Herald‘s invitation to comment for this story, citing uncertainty regarding a settlement agreement agreement in place for the civil lawsuit.

Fr. Sweeney also has a history of severe mental illness and substance abuse including alcohol addiction.

Except for some limited acquaintance with his alcoholism resulting from his extended in-patient treatment for that issue, which began less than two years after his 1979 ordination, Knoxville’s diocesan leadership claims it had no knowledge of Fr. Sweeney’s struggles in those regards until Fr. Sweeney disclosed some of his medical-psychological history to now-Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who was Bishop of Knoxville in July of 2004.

Fr. Sweeney remained in charge of three Knoxville parishes even after Mrs. Arnone told the bishop about her relationship with Fr. Sweeney in 2005.

Fr. Sweeney has threatened the plaintiff with legal action, telling Mrs. Arnone in a March 2019 letter that he would “unleash [his] lawyers” if she persisted.

“The letter,” Bishop Stika told the court, “relates directly to and flows directly from [Fr. Sweeney’s] illicit affair, not from any legitimate responsibility for the Diocese.” Earlier in March, Stika had “asked” Sweeney to write a letter of apology to the woman. “He declined,” Stika told the court, “based upon advice of his personal lawyer.”

Stika went on to say: “I did not authorize the letter and would not have approved it had I become aware of it before it was sent.”

Plaintiff’s response to Knoxville’s motion for summary judgment, however, makes reference to an email Fr. Sweeney sent to Bishop Stika on March 14th, 2019 – two weeks before the date of the threatening letter Sweeney sent to the plaintiff. The plaintiff claims that the email shows Fr. Sweeney telling (or reminding) Stika of his instructions to his personal attorneys: “To develop an extremely aggressive counter-offensive,” is how plaintiff’s response to the motion for summary judgment quotes the email.

The response to the motion for summary judgment also claims that Fr. Sweeney’s March 14th email to Bishop Stika ended with Sweeney’s expression of intention to make life very difficult for the plaintiff if she persisted. “The [plaintiff’s] cost emotionally, psychologically, and financially will be devastating,” plaintiff’s response to motion for summary judgment further quoted Sweeney’s March 14th email to Stika as saying.

In March of 2020, Fr. Sweeney published an account of his indiscretions with her, by open letter to the parishes of which he is pastor. That letter names the victim and contains several inaccurate assertions, among them that his sexual relationship with the woman took place after she was divorced.

Mrs. Arnone was married at the time of their sexual encounters, which took place over a period of several weeks in June of 2000. Fr. Sweeney had brought the woman into the Church, and put her in charge of her parish’s adult preparation course for reception into the Catholic Church — the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA — when she was still a very new convert.

Fr. Sweeney also admitted to telling the plaintiff he also had sex with other women and men, including a male hitchhiker he had picked up.

In his letter to parishioners, Fr. Sweeney explained that he had fabricated the stories. They were “entirely fictional,” he wrote. They were designed to show the woman that he was “already a terrible person,” so she would understand that she had not “ruined a priest.”

“It was insanity on my part,” Fr. Sweeney wrote in the letter.

It appears that no Bishop of Knoxville ever looked very far into Fr. Sweeney’s claims of repeated dalliances with both men and women, after he told the bishop he’d invented them either in order to make himself appear “macho” in the plaintiff’s eyes, or in an effort to make the plaintiff feel less awful about herself.

In a declaration to the court in the negligence case, Archbishop Kurtz — who was Bishop of Knoxville from 1999 to 2007 and had received the plaintiff’s original complaint in February of 2005 — told the court he believed Fr. Sweeney had concocted the stories about the other sexual encounters in order to show the woman that “she had not been the sole cause of his priestly infidelity.”

The Catholic Herald has obtained court filings in the negligence lawsuit, including the declarations of two bishops of Knoxville, current Bishop Rick Stika and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who led Knoxville 1999-2007.

In a 2019 conversation with Mrs. Arnone, Bishop Stika said, “[Fr. Sweeney] said that he made up that story,” about the hitchhiker, “to be macho.” The Catholic Herald has obtained an audio recording and transcript of the conversation, a conference call in which two Knoxville chancery officials, Frs. David Boettner and Doug Owens, also participated.

“[H]e wanted to show that again in the fogginess and the stupidity of whenever,” Bishop Stika said. “And also the fact that he was in a dark place. He wanted to appear macho, like he had a sexual experience.”

“I know that he had several women before me,” Mrs. Arnone told Bishop Stika in that same conference call. “You’re saying he’s had none since me . . .”

“No, he and I talked about that,” Bishop Stika responded. “He had dating experiences before he was a priest, not as a priest.”

“Then he is telling you something totally different than what he told me,” the woman replied.

Bishop Stika said: “Well, I’m just telling you – Father Sweeney has been honest since day one that this was brought to Archbishop Kurtz. I have known him for ten years, and I have had some very prying conversations about his sexuality, his past sexual experiences.”

Bishop Stika and Archbishop Kurtz both deny knowing about Fr. Sweeney’s sexual impropriety before 2005, when the woman came forward. In plaintiff’s reply to Knoxville’s motion for summary judgment, however, Mrs. Arnone’s attorneys mention documents discovered during the case, which show that the Diocese of Knoxville had received complaints of an inappropriate relationship between Sweeney and the plaintiff in 2004.

Fr. Sweeney also financially supported Mrs. Arnone through the years, even once helping her avoid foreclosure on her house. How the pastor of three small parishes had the wherewithal to offer several thousand dollars’ worth of financial assistance to anyone, why she turned to him and why he decided to support her, are questions an investigator with a broad mandate and a desire to get to the bottom of the situation would likely want to explore.

Fr. Sweeney’s case also involves a claim that the priest heard the woman’s confession of the sins she committed with him. If Sweeney did that, it was a serious crime at canon law. Archbishop Kurtz knew that.

“It would have been an even more grievous sin for Father Sweeney to have heard the confession of an accomplice in sin,” Archbishop Kurtz told the court. “This grievous sin is referred to as a ‘dilect’ [sic], and if true, could have resulted in laicization of Father Sweeney, that is, his removal from the priesthood.”

Archbishop Kurtz told the court that he discussed the matter with then-chancellor of the Knoxville diocese, Fr. Vann Johnston, who is now the Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Archbishop Kurtz also had the Knoxville diocesan review board look at the facts of the case.

Archbishop Kurtz met with Fr. Sweeney again on February 18th, 2005. Sweeney again confirmed that he had sexual relations with the woman in June 2000. “In regard to the alleged confessional dilect, he stated this was a very ‘foggy’ time in his life and he could not recall his every action,” Archbishop Kurtz said.

“However,” Archbishop Kurtz recalled, “[Fr. Sweeney] said that he knew he could not hear confession of an accomplice and never intended to do so.” Kurtz said Sweeney also recalled telling Ms. Arnone to go to confession to another priest, and did not remember hearing her confession “until after she went,” — to another priest? — “which he believed was likely in July 2000.”

“[Fr. Sweeney] acknowledged that he may not have been as clear as he could have been in explaining this,” to the accuser, Archbishop Kurtz said.

In the recorded conference call of 2019, Bishop Stika told the woman the confessional matter had been “handled canonically,” but the only specific reference to anything that might indicate a canonical resolution of the issue is in Archbishop Kurtz’s declaration to the court.

There, he says that he took “contemporaneous notes” of his meeting with the woman, which “were typed up and placed in [Fr. Sweeney’s] confidential Canon 489 file along with the records related to my investigation and the corresponding actions taken, which are attached as Exhibit 2 to the Declaration of Bishop Stika.”

Canon 489 regards the so-called “secret archive” of every diocese in the world. “In the diocesan curia there is also to be a secret archive, or at least in the common archive there is to be a safe or cabinet, completely closed and locked, which cannot be removed; in it documents to be kept secret are to be protected most securely,” the fist section of the law reads.

“Each year,” reads the second, “documents of criminal cases in matters of morals, in which the accused parties have died or ten years have elapsed from the condemnatory sentence, are to be destroyed.” The second section of canon 489 specifies that “a brief summary of what occurred along with the text of the definitive sentence is to be retained.”

Canon 490 says that only the bishop of a diocese is to have access to the secret archive.

There are lots of very legitimate reasons to keep files secret, and lots of legitimate reasons to destroy files. The fact of a secret archive is not of itself any real ground for suspicion. That Fr. Sweeney’s case involved very sensitive information pertaining to matters of confession, is legitimate reason to treat documentation relating to the case with the utmost discretion.

Churchmen are rightly concerned to keep such matters away from the general public and especially to resist any civil attempt to compel the release of confessional matters.

Willing forthrightness and rigorous transparency regarding every matter in which they are possible, would ease concern over Church leaders’ conduct in matters where they are not. They would go some distance toward restoring public confidence in the Church’s ability to do justice, especially in areas the civil authority cannot or ought not reach.

To this day, Fr. Michael J. Sweeney is a priest in good standing.

“We can’t comment on the details of the civil case,” the Diocese of Knoxville told the Catholic Herald in a statement. “Any inference that that issue is connected in any way, even canonically, to reports of a pending Vatican investigation of Bishop Stika would be inaccurate,” the statement continued. “Bishop Stika has stated repeatedly that he feels he has done nothing wrong and that he is open to a review of the way in which he leads the Diocese of Knoxville.”

A civil settlement, however, does not foreclose the canonical issues the case raises.

Whether Bishop Stika or Archbishop Kurtz, or both of them – together or separately — committed “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations” into the conduct of clerics or diocesan subjects remains to be determined.

Whether the inappropriate behavior of the clerics or diocesan subjects was canonically criminal also remains to be determined. That question will turn largely on two related issues:

  • Whether the clerics or diocesan subjects “[forced] someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.”
  • Whether the victims were persons – either minors or “vulnerable persons” defined as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence” – protected by the law.

There’s plenty of room for lawyering in those thorny issues. There is also ample reason to ask whether any of the hierarchical principals directly involved or implicated in one set of facts to be ascertained, ought to be investigating another principal also involved or implicated in another set of facts also to be ascertained.

That’s especially true when both principals were involved in one of the matters and had both headed the same diocese that is under investigation.

Under the metropolitan system Pope Francis’s 2019 reform law created, Archbishop Kurtz would be the Churchman responsible for investigating Bishop Stika.

Repeated calls from the Herald to Louisville archdiocesan communications director Cecelia Price went unanswered and unreturned. The Herald‘s emails to Price went without reply.

Fr. Sweeney’s case also raises questions about the structural soundness of the diocese, and regarding the cultural soundness of Church leadership across Tennessee and throughout the whole ecclesiastical province.

Pope St. John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville  by carving out territory from the Diocese of Nashville in 1988.

Fr. Sweeney was ordained in 1979, for what was then the Diocese of Nashville. “Throughout my seminary years,” he wrote in his letter to parishioners, “I turned to alcohol to self-medicate my way through the bouts of depression. It didn’t take long before I was drinking alcoholically.”

“The seminary administration suspected I might have a problem with alcohol, but I was such a highly functioning alcoholic [that] they were at a loss to ‘pin me down’. It wasn’t until eighteen months after ordination that I went into treatment.”

Did seminary administrators really fail to put their finger on the problem – and if so, how? Also, how did the Bishop of Nashville and three successive Bishops of Knoxville not see his severe depression? What went wrong in Fr. Sweeney’s case, and how many others like it have they missed over the years?

Structural deficiencies in Vos estis lux mundi

Almost any single element in the foregoing rehearsals could make for the stuff of a canonical investigation under Vos estis.

The problem is that, in 2004, the Bishop of Knoxville was Joseph Kurtz, who has since become the Archbishop of Louisville, Ky. That’s the metropolitan see responsible for the diocese of Knoxville.

Vos estis provides for the possibility of Rome finding an alternative in cases where there is potential conflict of interest or other impediment to the appearance of justice being done, but Pillar Catholic has reported that Louisville has already begun looking into the Knoxville business.

Having a metropolitan poking around in his old see, where there could be some of his own skeletons laying about in the backs of chancery closets, is not the sort of thing that inspires limitless confidence.

According to subsequent reporting by the Pillar, the Archdiocese of Louisville will be responsible for some kind of inquest — possibly an Apostolic Visitation, rather than a Vos estis investigation – in Knoxville.

The Catholic Herald hand-delivered a written invitation to discuss the Knoxville-Louisville situation to Archbishop Ilson de Jesus Montanari — the Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops — in April, but received no reply.

This reporter hand-delivered typewritten questions on letterhead to the private residence of the Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in early May. Those questions, for the record, have gone so far without reply or even acknowledgment of receipt.

Readers of the Catholic Herald will recall that Pope Francis opted for an Apostolic Visitation rather than a Vos estis investigation into Bishop Richard Malone’s leadership of the troubled Diocese of Buffalo, NY, despite mountains of publicly available evidence that appeared over years.

An Apostolic Visitation is one of the most ancient investigative tools in the papal repertoire. It is essentially a fact-finding mission. While an Apostolic Visitation has significant advantages, including breadth of scope, it also has drawbacks. One is that an Apostolic Visitation is not a criminal investigation.

Apostolic Visitations are not subject to reporting requirements, nor do they have the set time frames for completion that Vos estis imposed precisely to end the delays and obfuscation that had plagued previous internal investigations.

Most importantly, witnesses called to give evidence to the Visitor – the Churchman appointed to conduct the Visitation – may be sworn to secrecy. The Visitor’s report is secret, and goes directly to the pope.

There is a good deal more to the stories discussed here in broad strokes – likely more than enough to trigger a Vos estis investigation – and there is also more than enough in each, to trigger the desire of leading Churchmen to keep things tightly under wraps.

Whether Pope Francis will take a page from the Ignatian spiritual handbook, and agere contra – act against inclination – remains very much to be seen. Otherwise, another question this complex, complicated set of circumstances must press on all the faithful and the general public will be: When is an investigation not an investigation?