Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika resigns amid lawsuits and internal crises

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

June 27, 2023

By Tyler Whetstone

Richard Stika, the polarizing bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, has retired amid a crippling scandal of his own making, the diocese announced June 27.

Stika will leave the diocese, carved out in 1988 from the Diocese of Nashville, as its longest-serving bishop. He oversaw significant growth in membership in the church and led the construction of a massive new cathedral in Knoxville. The diocese serves about 70,000 Catholics in 50 parishes and one mission across East Tennessee.

Stika also, however, leaves under a cloud of mismanagement accusations, two explosive lawsuits against the diocese that have sullied diocesan leadership, and questions about his mentorship of a former seminarian who is accused of raping a former church employee.

Stika, just a week shy of 66, submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. Bishops almost never leave before the mandatory retirement age of 75 years old, and even then the pope frequently allows them to stay on.

“I recognize that questions about my leadership have played out publicly in recent months,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Stika’s exit was welcomed by a substantial number of East Tennessee Catholics who have raised alarm with high-ranking church officials about the bishop’s leadership. Many have wondered whether the Vatican was paying attention.

Most recently, Knox News has uncovered the following:

In November 2022, the diocese received an apostolic visit, where high-ranking church leaders came to Knoxville and conducted an investigation to learn more about the two lawsuits against the diocese over its handling of sex abuse allegations and complaints about the leadership of Stika.

An apostolic visit is a rare step to address concerns in a diocese, and it required approval by the highest levels of the Catholic church, likely the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., or the Vatican in Rome, experts told Knox News.

The apostolic visit was likely a response from the Vatican after it received complaints about Stika through the process called “Motu Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” or simply Vos Estis, canon law experts told Knox News. That process was created by Pope Francis in 2019 as a way for clergy and others to report allegations against bishops. There was previously no such process.

Hundreds of parishioners – in Chattanooga and Knoxville – have petitioned church officials in recent years asking for relief.

A diocese recently asked the judge overseeing the lawsuit by the former church employee to keep any Vos Estis documentation protected under seal. The judge ruled against the diocese, saying in part, “This motion is not well-taken.”

David Clohessy, former executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told Knox News that Stika should have been ousted, not allowed to retire.

“We are grateful to the courageous victims, witnesses, whistleblowers, advocates and concerned Catholics who all helped to expose his wrongdoing,” Clohessy said in an email to Knox News. “And our hearts ache for the survivors who have been so severely harmed by him and for the innocent children and vulnerable adults who have been in harm’s way because of him.”

The diocese announced the Pope has appointed Louisville Archbishop Shelton Fabre, who already oversees the diocese, as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville. He will serve until the appointment and installation of a new bishop.

St. Louis to Knoxville

Stika was named bishop of the Knoxville diocese in January 2009. He came from St. Louis, where he served in the archdiocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, was one of the first ministers to meet with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

He has been a divisive figure for years. Upon his appointment in Knoxville, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests released a statement claiming Stika “has repeatedly shown a penchant for secrecy, recklessness and half-truths.”

Some of the priests of the Knoxville diocese have been asking the highest reaches of the Catholic Church in America to take action against Stika. In 2021, 11 priests signed a letter to Archbishop Christophe Pierre at the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington, D.C. asking him to intervene. Their complaints were varied but centered, generally, on Stika’s handling of the lawsuit against the seminarian and other behavior they believed was inappropriate for a bishop.

The priests’ complaints included the following allegations:

  • The bishop said on a few occasions that he has spoken to the apostolic nuncio, who told him not to worry about reports from the priests to (then-)Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, since there are “only two disgruntled priests who complained”, and that Kurtz and the apostolic nuncio had determined that the reports were without merit.
  • The bishop said on a few occasions, in public and in private, that the apostolic nuncio assured him there would be no investigation into his handling of the seminarian in question.

Then there are the examples, the priests allege, of Stika’s inappropriate behavior.

  • They allege the bishop and the seminarian traveled together in the summer of 2021, as shown in a video on Facebook.
  • The bishop lifted the soutane (robe) of a priest, as both were standing in a public place, to determine whether the priest was wearing undergarments.
  • During the exhumation of the mortal remains of a priest with an open cause for sainthood, the bishop made repeated remarks about the clearly evident pubic hairs of the departed priest, remarks that spread widely among the faithful.
  • The bishop mentioned, in the presence of women, that a priest’s facemask reminded him of a woman’s bra. Stika then asked the priest what the “cup” size was.

Stika promised transparency when he arrived

Stika’s brash treatment of naysayers and his critique of the press weren’t evident in his early days at the diocese when he promised transparency and the importance of good relations with the media.

After a man came forward with allegations against an East Tennessee priest in 2010 – just over a year after Stika began his time here – the bishop called a 26-minute press conference at which he answered every question.

“As the bishop of this diocese, I want to assure everyone that we’re as transparent as possible,” he said. “We want people to know that this happened. We’re going to deal with it.

“I just want to assure people that if another case is reported and it’s credible, I’ll do the same thing,” he continued. “We’re going to follow our policies on our website.”

In the 2010 case, the priest, William Casey, admitted the abuse, which took place between 1979-80 when the victim was 10 years old. The following year, Casey was sentenced to a 40-year prison term for first-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of aggravated rape.

Stika: Health concerns played a role

Stika said his health, which has been up and down in recent years, was the main reason he submitted his resignation.

“People will speculate on why I am doing this. It is no secret that I have been dealing with life-threatening health issues most of my adult life,” he wrote.

Shortly after arriving in Knoxville, Stika was hospitalized with a serious illness during a trip to South Florida. He spent a day and a half on life support and a week in the cardiovascular intensive care unit, according to Knox News’ archives.

Long a diabetic, Stika said the illness was diabetic ketoacidosis, a severe drop in insulin storage. The episode caused a mild heart attack.

In December 2018 Stika had open heart surgery to place a stent an artery that was 99% blocked, he said at the time.

He was recently hospitalized again, but he did not say why.

Lawsuit details allegations of rape

John Doe was a placeholder name in the lawsuit to protect the identity of a former church employee who alleged a diocesan seminarian raped him. Doe has since been forced to refile his lawsuit under his legal name.

Knox News still refers to him as John Doe to protect his identity as an alleged victim of a sexual assault, and has not named the former seminarian because he has not been charged with a crime.

The lawsuit also details how the church, led by Stika, interfered with the investigation and worked to discredit him. Knox News independently verified the interference, which led to the firing of an independent investigator.

Jane Doe is a placeholder name in a lawsuit to protect the identity of a woman, a Honduran asylum seeker living in Gatlinburg, who alleges the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, groped her while he counseled her after the death of the father of her infant.

The woman alleges the diocese worked to discredit and intimidate her. Punnackal was later indicted by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery. His criminal trial begins in May.

The Catholic Diocese of Knoxville asked a judge to allow it to keep secret internal documents as it continues to defend itself. The judge denied the request.

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 Stika.

History of troubled bishops

The Knoxville diocese was created in 1988, carved out by Catholic leaders from the larger Nashville diocese. It is one of the newest in America and comprises roughly 70,000 Catholics.

Bishop Anthony O’Connell was the first bishop here and he served from 1988 until 1998, when he became the bishop of Palm Beach, Florida. While there he admitted to sexually abusing high school students in previous decades while working in the Jefferson City, Missouri diocese. The admission led to his resignation in 2002. He died in 2012.

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