Judge won’t shield documents in sex abuse lawsuit against Diocese of Knoxville

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

June 2, 2023

By Tyler Whetstone and Liz Kellar

Documents in a searing lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville cannot be kept secret, a Knox County judge has ruled.

The Catholic Diocese of Knoxville asked a judge to hide court documents from the public as it defends itself against a man who says he was raped by a seminarian and who is calling into question the leadership of Bishop Richard Stika.

The diocese cited Knox News’ ongoing investigative reports when it asked the judge to protect documents related to the church’s sexual abuse review board and from “private meetings of priests of the diocese.”

A spokesperson previously said the diocese was only seeking to protect a small percentage of documents.

“This motion is not well-taken,” Circuit Court Judge E. Jerome Melson said before ruling to keep the documents open.

In particular, Melson found the diocese’s attorney had not presented enough evidence to put in place a protective order, but noted there might be an opportunity in the future for a much more limited option.

The diocese’s attorney, Matthew Pietsch, sought to convince the judge the protective order was simply a way to handle still-unfiled documents that were being exchanged, and to limit news reports as a way to preserve the ability to have a fair and impartial jury.

“We’re not asking for a gag order,” he said.

Patrick Thronson, who is representing the man suing the diocese, told the judge the proposed protective order was so ambiguous it would result in a “broad swath” of the case being placed under seal. Thronson said pretrial publicity is not a recognized legal problem and any concern over bias can be addressed during jury selection.

The lawsuit was filed by a former church employee who says he was raped by a former church seminarian. The man says the diocese, led by Stika, interfered with the investigation and worked to discredit him, allegations Knox News has independently confirmed.

Knox News is not naming the man, even though the diocese successfully petitioned the court to require the suit to be refiled under his legal name, because he says he was the victim of a sexual assault.

What the church asked to be hidden

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

Of all the documents the diocese wants to protect, these are likely the most damning.

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

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.

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

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

In a similar case in 2022, a New York State Supreme Court justice ordered the Archdiocese of New York turn over its 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.

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 recent weeks Knox News has published stories detailed from communications from the review board.

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 – in private or in group settings – over the past two years, and it’s a way for the church to suppress specific comments from the bishop, who admitted in recent court filings to telling priests that the man who said he was sexually assaulted was the predator.

Tyler Whetstone is a Knox News investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Email tyler.whetstone@knoxnews.com. Twitter @tyler_whetstone.

Liz Kellar is a public safety reporter. Email lkellar@knoxnews.com. Twitter @LizKellar.