Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]
January 13, 2023
By Tyler Whetstone
- The Diocese of Knoxville changed last year the rules for how its sex abuse review board operates.
- The change was initiated three months after the diocese and Bishop Richard Stika were named in a sexual abuse lawsuit.
- The diocese says the new rules better protect victims.
- Sex abuse victim advocates say the new rules protect abusers.
Three months after the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and Bishop Richard Stika were named in an explosive sexual abuse lawsuit last year, leaders made the church’s sexual abuse review board meetings much more secretive, including requiring members to sign nondisclosure agreements, Knox News has learned.
The lawsuit asserted the church did not properly investigate sexual abuse allegations made by a former church employee and instead worked to discredit him. There has since been a separate lawsuit with similar allegations filed by a Sevier County woman.
The diocese maintains a more tight-lipped board better protects sexual abuse victims, but sex abuse victim advocates say it protects abusers.
Review boards were created by the Roman Catholic Church to address a flood of sexual abuse findings in the early 2000s. A review board advises a bishop when allegations of sexual abuse are made against church leaders, primarily priests, and are supposed to give victims the opportunity for validation from the church, especially in old cases protected by statute of limitation rules that prevent any sort of legal remedy.
The Knoxville diocese’s previous bylaws dated back to 2013, according to documents viewed by Knox News in an internet archive. Stika approved the new document that included changes to the review board on May 16.
The changes include:
- All meeting audio will be recorded and the recordings will be kept by the human resource director
- No notes can be taken by “other members of the board” and nothing can be taken from the meeting in order to “ensure the privacy and confidentiality of all proceedings.”
- No discussion of topics will be shared with non-review board members
- All board members must sign a privacy nondisclosure document, meaning they are legally prohibited from talking about the board’s activities
Separately, the new bylaws make the diocese’s human resources director a member of the board and the policy includes new language protecting “vulnerable people,” not just children, from abuse.
Diocese spokesman Jim Wogan pushed back against the notion that the changes were to increase secrecy, saying they were made as part of an annual review as the diocese welcomed new members to the board. He said, however, the changes increase privacy to benefit both victims and the accused.
Activists concerned with secrecy
The changes are more likely to protect predators and enablers, said David Clohessy, former executive director of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The message to board members, Clohessy said, is that the church will sue you if you say anything negative about the bishop outside meetings.
Secrecy always favors perpetrators, said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of bishopaccountability.org, an online public library of information about the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis.
“It’s really messed up. It’s unusual. Stika is tightening the screws,” Barrett Doyle told Knox News. “I mean, how do you keep track of a case, which always has a lot of details, how do you keep track without taking notes?
“He’s taking away their tools and he’s just trying to exert total control. It’s not surprising but I haven’t heard of a bishop acting in such extreme measures to control his review board.”
In 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops revised its policy to say review boards should function “as a confidential consultative body to the bishop or eparch.”
The Diocese of Nashville followed this advice and has similar language in its policy. Neither policy includes nondisclosure agreements or limits on note taking, though Nashville’s says members will “sign a statement committing not to disclose such information in any way except to the bishop” in a written report.
Joelle Casteix, former member of the diocese review board in Orange County, California, and a sexual abuse survivor and advocate for other survivors, said there’s a big difference in a confidential board that protects victims’ names and having members sign nondisclosure agreements with teeth.
“What is he dangling over these people if they break the policy?” she asked. “Is it a financial penalty? Will the church sue them?”
Catholics say changes protect people
Not everyone knowledgeable about review boards is alarmed by the Knoxville diocese’s changes. They are not unusual, said Nicholas Cafardi, a renowned canon lawyer who served on and later chaired the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth.
“At this preliminary stage, it is important to protect both the identity of the alleged abused person and the good name of the accused priest, so confidentiality, even the extreme confidentiality of the changes that you cite, is not unusual,” Cafardi wrote in an email to Knox News.
Wogan, the diocesan spokesman, said the changes don’t change the church’s duty to report allegations.
“There is nothing nefarious about the NDA, which is meant to reinforce the mandate that discussions within the context of the meetings remain private,” he said in an email. “It does not change the board’s obligation to report suspected abuse to (Tennessee Department of Children’s Services) in cases involving a minor, and the diocese always encourages adult victims, or their representatives, to report suspected abuse to civil authorities.”
While dioceses are required to report possible crimes to authorities, review boards and their findings are separate from secular law enforcement.
In November, Knox News reported the lawyer for the diocese sits on the review board while also defending the church against an abuse lawsuit, a friction that sex abuse victim advocates said creates a conflict of interest.
In response to questions about the setup, the diocese said it “is confident that no conflicts exist under the facts of the case.”
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. Make our community, our society and our republic stronger by supporting robust local journalism. Subscribe online at knoxnews.com/subscribe.