The Pillar [Washington DC]
January 31, 2023
By The Pillar
Bishop Rick Stika is accused of defamation, and covering up sexual abuse, in the Diocese of Knoxville.
The Pillar has confirmed a recently-made allegation, that Bishop Rick Stika told priests a seminarian accused of sexually assaulting a parish organist had actually been victimized by the organist – essentially recasting the story so that the accused seminarian was the victim, rather than the alleged aggressor.
The allegation came in a lawsuit refiled last week, which charges that Stika impeded an investigation into the claim that former seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk sexually assaulted the lawsuit’s plaintiff, who worked as a musician at the Diocese of Knoxville’s cathedral.
The suit was initially filed in February 2022, but had to be refiled this month, after a court agreed last year with the Diocese of Knoxville’s argument that the plaintiff could not file the lawsuit using a pseudonym. Plaintiff’s attorney Patrick Thronson told The Pillar that his client was not deterred by that ruling.
The newly filed 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 new charges added when the suit was refiled, the suit alleges that:
“Stika falsely stated at a General Priest Meeting at Cathedral Hall in Knoxville, Tennessee on May 25, 2021 that Plaintiff was a predator who had victimized Sobczuk. Plaintiff did not discover that Stika had made these statements until December 2022, when they were disclosed by a witness who attended the meeting and heard Stika utter those statements.”
It adds that:
“Stika falsely stated at an annual priest convocation held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on June 8, 2021 that Plaintiff had groomed Sobczuk. Plaintiff did not discover that Stika had made these statements until December 2022, when they were disclosed by a witness who attended the meeting and heard Stika utter those statements.”
The Pillar has confirmed those charges with multiple sources in attendance at the May and June 2021 meetings.
In May 2021, Stika made the same allegation directly to The Pillar.
During an interview, Stika told The Pillar that Sobczuk had been victimized by the organist, despite a report from the organist alleging the contrary, and despite the fact that Sobczuk had already faced other allegations of sexual misconduct.
“I make no apologies, because [Sobczuk] was a victim,” he told The Pillar, charging that he believed the parish organist had been sexually aggressive toward Sobczuk.
Stika also confirmed to The Pillar that he had removed George Prosser, an investigator appointed by the diocesan board to review the allegation against Sobczuk, because, the bishop said, Prosser “was asking all these questions.”
Subsequent reporting by The Pillar found records showing that Stika had given Sobczuk thousands in diocesan funds while he was a seminarian, and that Sobczuk had been accused of a second instance of assault against a fellow seminarian.
In addition to the Sobczuk cover-up lawsuit, Stika faces an unrelated lawsuit alleging that the bishop did not act to discipline or remove a priest for nearly two years after the priest was accused of sexually assaulting a grieving parishioner.
Stika has also faced criticism among parish pastors, after he leveled last year a 25% tax on funds distributed to parishes under the Paycheck Protection Program.
And in November, the Vatican dispatched two Virginia bishops to conduct an official apostolic visitation in the diocese, focusing on Stika’s leadership. No results have been announced from that visitation, even while the bishop faces mounting local pressure.
Criticism of Stika became public in April 2021, when The Pillar reported that the Vatican had received more than 10 complaints from priests about Stika’s leadership.
Since that time, 11 priests from the diocese asked the Vatican for “merciful relief” from the bishop.
“Our experience of our appointed bishop varies among us, but the undersigned do share a common awareness that the past twelve years of service under Bishop Stika have been, on the whole, detrimental to priestly fraternity and even to our personal well-being.”
“While we acknowledge the reality of suffering that comes with bearing our daily crosses, our appointed bishop seems determined to increase that suffering for his own purposes, purposes which seem unrelated to the demands of the Gospel,” the 11 Knoxville priests wrote to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, in September 2021.
The letter had not yet received a formal response. But sources in the diocese say that Stika has become increasingly erratic as he faces external pressure, continuing to solicit funds to support Sobczuk, and threatening priests of the diocese with retribution, if he believes they are among those making reports about him.
The Diocese of Knoxville has not responded to questions from The Pillar. Stika instructed diocesan personnel last year that staff should not acknowledge requests from The Pillar, sources have confirmed.
Accusing The Pillar in 2021 of reporting “fake news,” the bishop promised that he would “sue your ass” over The Pillar’s news reporting on the allegations against him. No lawsuit followed.