Knoxville diocese asks judge to allow it to keep documents secret, cites Knox News reports

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

February 6, 2023

By Tyler Whetstone

Key Points

  • The filing is the next step in the explosive lawsuit which alleges alleges a former church employee was raped by a church seminarian and that the church, led by Bishop Richard Stika, interfered.
  • The church asked the judge to permit the order of protection specifically due to the continued reporting of Knox News.
  • The church is specifically asking for investigative documents to be sealed. A similar request was denied in a New York Court late last year.

The Catholic Diocese of Knoxville is asking a judge to grant greater secrecy as the church continues to defend itself in an explosive sexual abuse lawsuit. The effort is in large part due to the reporting of Knox News.

The Catholic Diocese of Knoxville has asked a judge to allow it to keep secret internal documents as it defends itself in an explosive sexual abuse lawsuit.

The diocese, citing ongoing coverage by Knox News, requested the protection of materials related to the church’s sexual abuse review board and from “private meetings of priests of the Diocese.” The diocese also refiled a request to protect investigative documents related to complaints filed against Bishop Richard Stika.

The lawsuit was filed by a former church employee who says he was raped by a church seminarian. The man says the diocese, led by Stika, interfered with the investigation and worked to discredit him. Knox News is not naming the man because he says he was the victim of a sexual assault.

The diocese argues it needs protection specifically because of the “continued publicity that this litigation has garnered over the past year – most recently exhibited by the multitude of articles published by the Knoxville News Sentinel over the past month.”

Jim Wogan, diocesan spokesperson, told Knox News in an email the diocese is only seeking to protect “a very, very small percentage of the total materials provided” and “would not restrict the use of the materials in litigation.” 

What the church wants to protect

  • Documents and communications of its sexual assault review board

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.

In this case, before a lawsuit was filed, the church’s review board hired retired Tennessee Valley Authority investigator George Prosser, an outsider who isn’t Catholic, to investigate the claims.

Prosser was fired soon after he began, he and a former review board member told Knox News.

The diocese ended up replacing Prosser with another investigator, Chris Manning, who told the Catholic news publication, The Pillar, he interviewed only the former employee and not the man who said he was sexually assaulted. The lawsuit relies heavily on revelations unearthed by The Pillar, which first reported on Stika’s removal of Prosser in May 2021.

  • Documents and communications of private meetings with priests

This broad request could be seen as a cover to blanket any interactions Stika has had with priests over the past two years, and it’s certainly a way for the church to suppress specific comments from the bishop, who told priests that the man who said he was sexually assaulted was a predator, according to his lawsuit.

Documents related to ‘Vos Estis,’ and why it’s important

Beginning in 2019 the Catholic Church created a way for priests and others to make complaints about bishops, said James Connell, a whistleblower priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and canon lawyer.

The name of this new reporting process is “Motu Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” or simply Vos Estis, and it was created by Pope Francis himself.

The church would like to keep these investigative reports secret and previously asked Judge E. Jerome Melson to protect them. The judge declined the church’s request last summer but gave it the opportunity to revisit the request.

Those documents are not supposed to be privileged or private, per church law, said Tom Doyle, a former Jesuit priest and canon lawyer who is an expert in clerical sex abuse.

In a similar case in November, a New York State Supreme Court justice ordered the Archdiocese of New York turn over it’s entire Vos Estis investigative file after the lawyers argued the documents should remain secret.

It’s likely, Connell said, that the Vos Estis reports about Stika are what prompted a visit to the diocese last fall by high-ranking church officials.

In that case, the Vos Estis investigation would have been conducted by the Archdiocese of Louisville (which oversees the Knoxville diocese), he said. If that’s what occurred, either Archbishop Joseph Kurtz (the former bishop of Knoxville) or new Archbishop Shelton Fabre reported their findings to the Vatican.

It makes sense, then, Connell said, that the Vatican gave approval for the apostolic visit that took place the last week of November. That visit is a signal church authorities are concerned, experts told Knox News.

Simply put, Doyle said, “something had to trigger the apostolic visitation.”

A pattern of secrecy

Three months after the diocese and Stika were named in the lawsuit, leaders made the church’s sexual abuse review board meetings much more secretive, including requiring members to sign nondisclosure agreements and disallowing note taking.

The diocese says a more tight-lipped board better protects sexual abuse victims, but sex abuse victim advocates say it protects abusers.

Last week the the man who said he was sexually assaulted refiled his lawsuit after a judge sided with the church in requiring him to file the lawsuit under his legal name, a move abuse experts said was intended to intimidate the man and anyone in the future who considers suing over sexual abuse.

Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone.