Knoxville Catholic diocese accused of improper sexual abuse investigation, lawsuit alleges

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

February 23, 2022

By Liam Adams

An unnamed plaintiff is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and its bishop, alleging the diocese did not properly investigate sexual abuse allegations against a former employee.

The complaint, filed Tuesday in Knox County Circuit Court, outlines in vivid detail several instances of sexual harassment and abuse the plaintiff said he suffered. It also makes several allegations about the bishop overreaching in an investigation of abuse claims, using information reported last year by a news agency. 

The plaintiff didn’t learn of the diocese’s “casually connected and conspiratorial efforts to conceal their involvement in his sexual abuse” until The Pillar, a Catholic news agency, published articles on the diocese early last year, the lawsuit alleges. 

Diocesan attorneys are currently reviewing the claims after Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika received notification of the lawsuit on Tuesday evening, diocesan spokesperson Jim Wogan said in a statement Wednesday.

 “The diocese expects the process to be fair and thorough and looks forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend itself if this matter moves forward,” Wogan said. 

The two law firms representing the plaintiff, known as John Doe in the lawsuit, are also litigating a case against the Catholic Diocese of Nashville alleging that diocese mishandled reports of abuse at a Murfreesboro parish.

The man who committed the abuse at the Murfreesboro parish, Michael D. Lewis, pleaded guilty last week to four counts of statutory rape, concluding the criminal proceedings. The lawsuit against the Diocese of Nashville is ongoing.

Abuse committed by diocesan employee in 2019, according to lawsuit

The 46-page complaint against the Knoxville diocese devotes 10 pages to alleged abuse committed by a diocesan employee against the plaintiff.  According to the lawsuit, the abuse occurred in 2019 when the plaintiff was a musician at The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, and when the former employee worked as an assistant to Stika, a job that involved travel to different parishes.

The plaintiff contends he was subject to a pattern of grooming and details one instance on Feb. 5, 2019, when the plaintiff said the former employee raped him, according to the lawsuit. 

Following subsequent instances of harassment, the former employee wrote a letter to the plaintiff on Feb. 14, 2019, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit included a copy of the letter. 

“And for what was wrong – I apologize with all my heart,” the letter read, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff sought to file a report of the rape with the Knoxville Police Department on Feb. 25, 2019, but was ultimately dissuaded after an officer told the plaintiff “the church would come after” the plaintiff, the lawsuit contends.

“The KPD does not have a comment. We have searched our records and have no way to verify if an officer did speak with the plaintiff in the lawsuit,” Knoxville Police Department spokesperson Scott Erland said in a statement Wednesday. 

One of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Patrick Thronson, said in an interview Wednesday he is not aware of any criminal investigations related to this case. Also, Thronson’s client is not pursuing civil action against the former diocese employee.

Not naming the former employee as a defendant in the suit “is certainly not any indication that we believe he’s not responsible,” Thronson said. Thronson, an attorney based in Baltimore, is litigating the case with Nashville-based attorney John Spragens.

Lawsuit cites articles about the investigation from a Catholic news agency

Later in the complaint, the plaintiff contends the diocese did not properly investigate allegations of abuse, citing several news articles published by The Pillar last year about the controversy. The lawsuit quotes several articles published by The Pillar. 

The diocese hired an outside consultant to investigate the claims, who Stika replaced halfway through the investigation because the initial investigator was “causing confusion” by the questions he asked, Stika told The Pillar, according to an article. 

The replacement investigator, Chris Manning, told The Pillar he only interviewed the former employee and not the plaintiff, according to the lawsuit.

Despite on-the-record statements from Stika and Manning, The Pillar repeatedly cited unnamed sources in its reporting on the controversy last year.

“The Pillar is only one source for the complaint and the complaint stands on its own independent of the reporting in The Pillar,” Thronson said. 

him at or on Twitter @liamsadams