Knoxville diocese used top priest to take sex abuse complaints instead of therapist

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

January 17, 2023

By Tyler Whetstone

No complaints of sexual abuse were registered in the months the priest filled the spot

  • Catholic dioceses rely on victim assistance coordinators to take complaints of sex abuse from within the church.
  • When the Knoxville diocese’s coordinator died, the diocese filled the spot with a top church official.
  • Church watchdogs say the arrangement is troubling.
  • The diocese has hired the McNabb Center to fill the victim assistance coordinator position.

The Roman Catholic Church created review boards in the early 2000s, following revelations of widespread sexual abuse by clergy, and victim assistance coordinators have filled at important role in helping victims raise the alarm about predatory priests.

In East Tennessee, the Diocese of Knoxville turned to a licensed therapist, Marla Lenihan, to become its first victim assistance coordinator. Lenihan, who had decades of experience in private practice in Oak Ridge, died in March.

Lenihans’ replacement? Bishop Richard Stika’s right-hand man, the Rev. Douglas Owens, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church, and the diocese’s top administrative official under Stika.

In the months that Owens filled the position – from sometime after Lenihan’s death until the end of last year, no complaints of sexual abuse were registered in the Knoxville diocese.

Church watchdogs say they were alarmed that a church official filled the role, especially considering the diocese and Stika have been named in recent lawsuits asserting sexual abuse at the hands of a seminarian and a priest.

Bob Hoatson is co-founder of Road to Recovery, a sex abuse survivors advocacy agency in New Jersey, and a former priest and clerical sex abuse survivor. He told Knox News having the No. 2 official in the diocese handle the victim assistance coordinator position is “completely inappropriate.” 

“Why is that? Because he is privy to the secrets of the diocese,” Hoatson said. “This is supposed to be an open, honest and transparent review board … they’re going to support the bishop and the findings of the bishop and the findings can never ever be trusted.”

At the end of the year, the diocese announced a new agreement with the McNabb Center, a well-known nonprofit organization that provides victims services and mental health care, among other help.

Neither the diocese nor the McNabb Center will provide details of the agreement, but the process will remain the same, diocesan spokesperson Jim Wogan told Knox News.

The McNabb Center, filling the role of victim assistance coordinator, will be the point of contact for sexual abuse complaints, and will report them to church officials who will decide if they should be investigated and potentially brought to the sexual abuse review board.

In the roughly 10-month period the diocese received no calls or complaints, Wogan told Knox News.

How we got here

The Roman Catholic sexual abuse review boards were created by the church in response to the explosive sexual abuse findings of the early 2000s, which gained international attention through reporting by the Boston Globe.

The review boards are meant to give victims validation from the church, especially in old cases protected by statutes of limitation that prevent any sort of legal remedy.

Though dioceses are required to report possible crimes to authorities, review boards and their findings are separate from secular law enforcement.

Church: Arrangement was temporary

Wogan, the spokesperson for the diocese, said Owens was the right person to lead in the transition, and the church is pleased with what McNabb offers. Diocesan leaders were focused on giving the victim assistance coordinator’s role to someone unaffiliated the church, Wogan told Knox News.

“Because this was something new for McNabb, and for our diocese, it took longer than expected,” he said in an email.

In a release announcing the agreement with the McNabb Center, Stika said the contract is “a positive step for our diocese, but most important it is a new path forward for anyone who feels that they have been a victim of abuse.”

Stika said the arrangement with the McNabb Center, an independent organization outside the church, is unique, “but we believe it’s the right thing to do. The McNabb Center shares our desire to offer dignity and a voice to those who have been victimized.”

James Connell is a canon lawyer and priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who has a history of supporting whistleblowers. He said it may be reasonable for the church to take its time in filling the victim assistance coordinator position, but filling it with Stika’s No. 2 raises concerns.

“So, for him to be the one that stepped in as opposed to picking somebody else in the office to do it, well, (the calls) had to go somewhere, somebody had to take the calls,” he said.

“But he’s the right-hand man. He’s close to the decision-maker, and I can understand all of those concerns and would share those concerns.”

How it will work

The McNabb Center will give provide an independent perspective to the complaint process, the diocese said in its news release, but the service covers only the reporting of allegations back to the diocese, according to McNabb Center spokesperson Heather Davis.

The reports will be sent to the Revs. David Boettner and Owens, two diocesan top officials. Police would be notified in required cases and when the person who reported the abuse chooses. If the victim is a minor, the Department of Children’s Services will be contacted.

“In the event the abuse allegation involves a minor or vulnerable adult, mandatory reporting guidelines will be followed,” Davis said in an email to Knox News. “In all other situations, callers may choose to decide if they want to report to law enforcement. If the caller chooses to do so, we will provide them with information and reporting options.”

Wogan underscored the obligation of both the McNabb Center and the church to report to civil authorities cases involving minors or vulnerable adults.

Connell, the priest from Milwaukee, said the McNabb Center should receive every document created by Owens or anyone else in the period the process was overseen internally. Davis said the McNabb Center has not requested those documents.

The agreement is unusual for the McNabb Center, as well. This is its first third-party reporting line contract, Davis said, though the agency operates the Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee that includes a 24/7 crisis line.

The phone number to the McNabb Center’s victim’s assistance coordinator is 865-321-9080. The coordinator will respond to all reports within one business day.

Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. Make our community, our society and our republic stronger by supporting robust local journalism. Subscribe online at