Pope Francis accepts resignation of Knoxville’s embattled Bishop Stika

National Catholic Reporter [Kansas City MO]

June 27, 2023

By Christopher White

ope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Stika, the embattled leader of the Diocese of Knoxville, following a tumultuous two-year period in which the diocese was subject to a Vatican investigation and multiple lawsuits over its handling of abuse cases. 

The Vatican made the announcement in its daily bulletin on June 27 and did not list a reason for the resignation, nor did it name an immediate successor. At age 65, Stika — who has led the East Tennessee diocese since 2009 — is a full decade younger than the standard retirement age of 75 for Catholic bishops. 

For years, questions have swirled around his alleged cover-up of abuse, diocesan finances, morale among priests and the overall administration and management of the diocese. 

In an interview with NCR earlier this year, Stika defended his 14-year record in Knoxville, which he maintained had seen an uptick in new parishes, seminarians and donations. 

“I see growth, I see financial stability, I see vocations, and I see happiness,” he said at the time.

But testimonials on the ground often painted a different story. 

In 2022, 11 Knoxville priests wrote to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s representative to the United States, appealing for “merciful relief” from Stika’s leadership of the diocese. In two separate lawsuits, the diocese is accused of obstructing investigations into clergy sex abuse and intimidating people who reported they were abused. And at the end of 2022, the diocese was subject to an apostolic visitation to assess the leadership of the diocese. 

An NCR report published last month included accounts from six diocesan priests, all who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being retaliated against by Stika, describing the bishop as an authoritarian and abusive figure who often bullied priests. Stika has adamantly denied those allegations. 

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Stika was ordained a priest of his hometown archdiocese in 1975. From 1994-2004, he served as archdiocesan chancellor, working closely with its then Archbishop Justin Rigali. 

Rigali, who in 2003 was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, would go on to serve as a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops under Pope Benedict XVI, the influential Vatican department tasked with advising popes on the nomination of bishops. 

In 2009, the long-time Rigali protégé was named the third bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, home to 75,000 Catholics. Upon his retirement in 2011, Rigali moved into a residence with Stika. 

Stika’s departure from Knoxville marks the second time in five years that an apostolic visitation has led to the expulsion of a bishop in Tennessee, home to only three Catholic dioceses. In 2018, Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis was removed from the pastoral governance of that diocese after a rocky two-year period. 

Earlier this month, on June 18, a group of advocates for child sex abuse victims demonstrated in front of Knoxville’s Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, as part of a “Time’s Up, Rick Rally.” The group of protesters called for Stika’s immediate resignation. 

“The pope says you’re fired,” read one sign. 

A press release from the U.S. bishops’ conference said that Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, Kentucky, will serve as the apostolic administrator of the Knoxville Diocese until the appointment and installation of a new bishop.