Embattled Tennessee bishop resigns after priest complaints, abuse-related lawsuits

Associated Press [New York NY]

June 27, 2023

By Travis Loller and Nicole Winfield

The bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, resigned under pressure Tuesday following allegations he mishandled sex abuse allegations and several of his priests complained about his leadership and behavior, sparking a Vatican investigation.

Pope Francis accepted Bishop Richard Stika’s resignation, according to a one-line statement from the Vatican. At 65, Stika is still 10 years below the normal retirement age for bishops.

The Vatican didn’t identify a replacement in its statement, but the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops said the archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, the Most Reverend Shelton Fabre, was named temporary administrator to run the diocese until a new bishop is installed.

Stika’s departure, after 14 years as bishop of Knoxville, closes a turbulent chapter for the southern U.S. diocese that was marked by a remarkable revolt by some of its priests, who accused Stika of abusing his authority and protecting a seminarian accused of sexual misconduct. They appealed to the Vatican for “merciful relief” in 2021, citing their own mental health, sparking a Vatican investigation that led to Stika’s resignation.

In media interviews, Stika has strongly defended his actions and his leadership and said he worked to bring unity in the diocese.

In a statement Tuesday, Stika cited “life-threatening health issues” as part of the reason for his resignation. He listed diabetes, heart problems and neuropathy, among other issues, though he also said the public airing of problems in the diocese had affected him.

“I recognize that questions about my leadership have played out publicly in recent months. I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that some of this has weighed on me physically and emotionally. For these reasons, I asked the Holy Father for relief from my responsibilities as a diocesan bishop,” he said.

In addition to the priests’ complaints, Stika is the subject of at least two lawsuits that accuse him of mishandling sexual abuse allegations and seeking to silence the accusers. In one, a former employee at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville — who uses the pseudonym John Doe — accused a seminarian there of harassing and raping him in 2019.

The suit filed in Chancery Court in Knox County says Stika should have known the seminarian was dangerous because he had been accused of sexual misconduct previously. Instead, Stika encouraged the accuser’s friendship with the man, and the accuser felt pressure to comply for fear of losing his job, it says.

Even after the former employee accused the seminarian of rape, Stika let the seminarian live in his home and steadfastly defended him, the suit says. Stika also told multiple people that the seminarian was innocent and that the accuser was the aggressor, it says. In addition, Stika removed an investigator who was looking into the allegations, replacing him with someone else who never talked to the accuser, according to the lawsuit.

In a second lawsuit, a Honduran immigrant seeking asylum in the United States accused a priest in the diocese of locking her in a room and sexually assaulting her after she went to him for grief counseling in 2020. The woman went to the police, and the diocese was aware of the accusation but took no action against the priest until after he was indicted on sexual battery charges in 2022, according to the lawsuit.

The suit accuses the diocese of spreading rumors about the woman that led to her being shunned and harassed in the community.

The woman, who uses the pseudonym Jane Doe, filed a civil suit against the diocese. The diocese, in turn, hired a private detective to investigate her. The detective illegally obtained her employment records and told police that she had committed employment fraud, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims the diocese was trying to either intimidate her into dropping both lawsuits or get her arrested and deported.

Around the same time, a group of priests from the Diocese of Knoxville sent a letter to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio who serves as a representative for Pope Francis in the United States.

In the letter dated Sept. 29, 2021, the priests appealed for “merciful relief” from “the suffering we’ve endured these past 12 years” under Stika.

Those years have been “detrimental to priestly fraternity and even to our personal well-being,” the letter states. It goes on to describe “priests who are seeing psychologists, taking anti-depressants, considering early retirement, and even looking for secular careers.”

The Vatican authorized an investigation of the diocese, called an “apostolic visitation,” that took place in late 2022.

In his statement, Stika said he hoped to remain in active ministry in his hometown of St. Louis and continue living with Cardinal Justin Rigali, a retired archbishop of Philadelphia with whom he has lived for the past 12 years in the same Knoxville bishop’s residence as the seminarian.

His temporary replacement, Fabre, tweeted the announcement of Stika’s resignation and asked for prayers for himself and the people of East Tennessee “during this time of transition.”

Loller reported from Nashville, Tennessee.

This story corrects that the new investigator is not the father of a priest.