The Pillar [Washington DC]
February 23, 2022
A Feb. 22 lawsuit against the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, and its bishop, alleges that a former parish organist was raped and sexually harassed by a diocesan employee and seminarian, and that a diocesan investigation into his allegation was impeded by the bishop.
Bishop Rick Stika told The Pillar last year that he removed a diocesan investigator looking into the rape allegation, and that he “knew in [his] heart” the seminarian was innocent.
The suit also charges that Stika has claimed the seminarian, Wojciech Sobczuk, was himself sexually assaulted by the lawsuit’s plaintiff. The suit characterizes that claim as an “egregious” defamation of a rape victim.
“The lawsuit raises disturbing questions regarding the Diocese of Knoxville’s commitment to protecting its employees and the community from sexual abuse. It raises disturbing questions regarding the Diocese of Knoxville’s commitment to providing for the welfare and healing of victims of sexual abuse. And it raises disturbing questions regarding the Diocese of Knoxville’s commitment to holding itself accountable to its public commitments on this issue,” Patrick Thronson, an attorney representing the lawsuit’s plaintiff, told The Pillar Feb. 22.
The suit was filed in Knox County, Tennessee on Tuesday. The plaintiff filed the suit under a pseudonym, John Doe, “due to the highly private and emotionally difficult nature of the allegations and the prospect of publicity that may intrude into deeply personal matters.”
The suit charges that Stika and the Knoxville diocese concealed and covered-up “Sobczuk’s abuse [and] sexual misconduct,” transferred “Sobczuk to new postings to prevent further complaints,” failed to report allegations against Sobczuk to police, and failed to provide pastoral care to Sobczuk’s victims.
In May, Bishop Stika asked The Pillar to tell the “whole story” of the allegations he faced. So we did.
Stika admitted to The Pillar that he had removed an investigator from a 2021 diocesan enquiry into the 2019 rape allegation against Subczuk, because the investigator was “asking all these questions” during his investigation.
The investigator was George Prosser, a retired inspector general of the Tennessee Valley Authority, who had been appointed by the diocesan review board to look into the allegation that Sobczuk had raped the parish organist.
Stika told The Pillar that Prosser acted inappropriately by asking questions of chancery personnel and seminary administrators in the course of his investigation.
The bishop did not comment on whether an investigation would be credible if it did not question potential witnesses.
Stika said he unilaterally replaced Prosser with Chris Manning, a retired police officer and member of the Knoxville review board, who interviewed only the accused seminarian before concluding his review of the situation. Stika said that process was, in his view, a just one.
Stika told The Pillar directly that he wanted to defend Sobczuk because he was convinced of the former seminarian’s innocence.
“I have been fighting in the diocese rumors about Wojciech…I’ve been constantly fighting these battles because I know he is innocent,” Stika said of the seminarian. “And if there’s anything, maybe I’m like a dog with a bone. I really believe somebody has to stand up for people when you think they’re innocent.”
The bishop told The Pillar he had brought him to Knoxville for a period of evaluation before accepting him as a diocesan seminarian, but was already presenting him as a seminarian in July 2018, when the cathedral announced he would be in residence as an “inter seminarian,” – not in studies.
Stika eventually invited Sobczuk to live in the bishop’s residence until his seminary studies could begin.
Stika told The Pillar he brought the seminarian to Knoxville after a strong recommendation from Polish Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz.
The Pillar has unable to reach Dziwisz for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Sobczuk was dismissed from the Jesuits amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which, the suit alleges, Stika should have known about when he brought the man to the Knoxville diocese in 2018.
On Feb. 5, 2019, while Sobczuk was employed by the diocese as Stika’s assistant and still identified as an “inter seminarian” at the cathedral, he allegedly raped the lawsuit’s plaintiff, an organist at the diocesan cathedral, whom he allegedly continued to sexually harass after the rape.
The plaintiff contacted Knoxville police in shortly after the assault, but concerned he might lose his job, did not file charges, the lawsuit claims.
The suit includes as an exhibit a handwritten note, dated Feb. 14, 2019, which the plaintiff claims Sobczuk gave to him, along with a bottle of champagne.
The note read:
“Dear [Doe], You are a wonderful man! I am so happy that I could meet you. Thank you for everything. And for what was wrong – I apologize with all my heart.”
The plaintiff says that just days after the rape. he received a gift from Stika, with whom he had never had a meaningful conversation. The gift, an expensive missal with an inscription from Stika, was delivered to him by Sobczuk.
The inscription read:
“[Doe], Stay always close to God! Blessings, Bishop Rick Stika.”
“Since Doe had never had a substantive conversation with Stika, and the missal was inscribed and given mere days after he was raped, the gift frightened Doe,” the lawsuit claims. “He reasonably interpreted the gift of the missal and the inscription as a threat not to disclose what had happened to him.”
Stika told The Pillar last year that he and the cathedral’s rector investigated the matter personally in 2019, and, satisfied that the allegation was untrue, Stika sent Sobczuk for studies at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. The lawsuit claims that alleged investigation “never occurred.”
In March 2019, several weeks after the alleged rape, the lawsuit alleges that Stika took Subczuk and the plaintiff out to dinner. The plaintiff, who claims he continued to be harassed by Subczuk after the alleged rape, said he felt he had no choice but to attend the meal, as Stika was his boss. The suit charges that during the dinner, Stika eagerly encouraged a friendship between Sobczuk and the plaintiff, and suggested that the men communicate via Snapchat — apparently so that their messages would disappear after being viewed.
In his conversations with The Pillar, the bishop did not make mention of the missal, or indicate what prompted the gift.
While at St. Meinrad Seminary, Sobczuk was accused by other seminarians of sexual misconduct at least three times, in incidents which Stika called “boundary issues.” Sources close to the seminary said the incidents consisted of sexual harassment or assault of other seminarians.
Sobczuk was dismissed from St. Meinrad Seminary in February 2021.
After Sobczuk was dismissed from studies, Stika told Knoxville priests he had been appointed to assist the bishop with chancery duties during a “discernment period.”
The bishop told The Pillar in May that Sobczuk remained formally a seminarian of the diocese, because of his immigration status.
“The only reason I considered him a seminarian [after dismissal] was until he got his immigration papers,” Stika said. “So now he’s been accepted by another school… and now that he’s got all his immigration [sorted out], he’s no longer considered a seminarian.”
“It doesn’t mean he’s not my friend,” the bishop added.
Stika told The Pillar in May that Sobczuk is eligible to reapply in two years for priestly formation in the diocese.
In August 2021, Sobczuk accompanied Stika on a vacation — a 10-day road trip taken along with Cardinal Justin Rigali.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday also claims that “Stika has repeatedly claimed that John Doe raped Sobczuk, rather than the other way around.”
Stika has made that claim to The Pillar in on-the-record conversations. And several priests in the Knoxville diocese told The Pillar that Stika has made the same allegation in conversation with them, charging that John Doe was the assailant, and Sobczuk the victim.
“Stika’s statements were particularly outrageous and harmful to Plaintiff because Plaintiff was raped by Sobczuk,” the lawsuit says.
The Diocese of Knoxville told The Pillar Tuesday it had no comment on the lawsuit. Stika, who is vacationing this week, could not be reached for comment.
After complaints from priests in the diocese about Stika’s removal of the review board investigator, the bishop was the subject of Vatican investigation during the summer of 2021. A decision has not yet been communicated on whether Stika will remain in ministry as a diocesan bishop.
For his part, Thronson told The Pillar that the plaintiff’s lawsuit is “about accountability. It’s about holding the Church accountable and holding it to its commitment. As we’ve alleged in the complaint, it’s not simply that the diocese has failed to protect employees and parishioners. It’s not simply that it’s failed to respond to credible allegations of sexual abuse and offer healing to victims.”
“It’s that the diocese, as we’ve alleged in the complaint, has directly victimized somebody who has suffered sexual abuse, and defamed them in an effort to preserve its own reputation and the reputation of this seminarian.”
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Correction: The Pillar initially reported that Stika brought Sobczuk to the Knoxville diocese in 2019. In fact, Sobczuk came to the diocese in 2018 and was already identified as a diocesan seminarian that year. The Pillar has updated our report.