Bp. Stika clarifies: ‘Open letter’ of support ‘could be a fake’

The Pillar [Washington DC]

October 3, 2023

By Ed. Condon

Bishop Rick Stika, the former Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, published Tuesday a text he called an “open letter” of support for him and signed, he says, by an “Anonymous Conclave of 10” cardinals.

After the letter attracted attention among Catholics Oct. 3, the bishop told The Pillar that he could not guarantee the text’s authenticity, but that he believed its contents were a fair summation of his experience in the Church.

The letter, which Stika posted on Facebook as a text without accompanying images of the document, said the former Knoxville bishop’s June resignation was a “grave loss, not only for the faithful of the diocese but for the Universal Church.” 

“The solemnity of our message cannot be overstated: Bishop Stika’s pastoral guidance and spiritual leadership in the Diocese of Knoxville have been a beacon of light and hope for countless souls,” the text said, adding praise for the bishop’s “genuine care for the spiritual well-being of each member of his flock, and his unwavering commitment to the Gospel.”

On his Facebook page, Stika billed the text as an open letter of support, which was supposedly addressed to “the Faithful of the Universal Church and All Persons of Good Will.” 

Apparently signed by “The Anonymous Conclave of 10,” the text appears to have been published only on Stika’s personal Facebook page.

Given the text’s apparent presumption that Stika was removed from office, the letter would seem to cast doubt on the bishop’s own accounts of his resignation, which he has attributed to health.

While Stika has said that he knows the names of the supposed signatories, he declined to list them and said he could not guarantee the letter’s authenticity.

The letter attracted attention among Catholics Tuesday, after the bishop posted it to his Facebook page.

Reached for comment by The Pillar, Bishop Stika said he was unsure of the letter’s provenance, but decided to publish the text after receiving it by post.

“I don’t know how valid it is,” said Stika. “I just put it out there. I just got it in the mail with some names on it.”

Stika told The Pillar that he did not know whether it had been sent to anyone but himself.

 “I have no idea. I know very little about it. I got it this morning and it was signed by people and I don’t know if they signed it or not, but I think the context is pretty fair.”

“I don’t know who put it out. It could be a fake. I just put it out,” Stika clarified.

Stika’s resignation was announced by the Vatican on June 27. 

While his resignation followed years of controversy, including the alleged cover-up of sexual assault allegations made against a diocesan seminarian, the bishop said in June that the decision to resign was his own.

In a June 27 statement, Stika cited health problems, adding that “questions about my leadership … weighed on me emotionally and physically. For these reasons, I asked the Holy Father for relief from responsibilities as a diocesan bishop.”

On the day he resigned, Stike sent that statement to his diocesan clergy — several of whom had written to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, DC, asking for “merciful relief” from their bishop’s leadership. 

But despite Stika’s insistence that his decision to resign was his own and not the Vatican’s, the text he posted Tuesday — from the “Anonymous Conclave of 10” — appeared to suggest that the bishop had in fact been forced from office.

“It is deeply troubling that in our times, where clarity and unity are most required, voices of dissent and misjudgment can lead to the unnecessary removal of such a dedicated servant of God from his mission,” the Facebook text said. 

Facebook post by Bp Rick Stika, represented as an anonymous open letter by ten cardinals

“To the faithful of the Diocese of Knoxville, we share in your sorrow,” the anonymous author(s) wrote. 

“The precipitate actions leading to Bishop Stika’s departure seem, from our perspective, to lack the profound discernment and patience which are so integral to the teachings of our faith.”

At the time of his resignation, Stika said that he expected to “remain in active ministry, but at a slower pace,” and that he would move to St. Louis, Missouri, his hometown, along with Cardinal Justin Rigali, with whom he has lived for several years.

Stika told The Pillar Tuesday that, despite the open letter’s suggestion he had been removed or forced from office under pressure from ecclesiastical authorities, the decision to resign had been his own. 

“I just wrote a letter to the pope asking to resign early for reasons of health,” he said.

“My letter to the Holy Father was requesting retirement because of health. I’m blind in one eye. I have congestive heart failure, early stages. I’m 43 years a diabetic. I’ve got four stents and four bypasses. So it was a pretty good time. And I was driving 35,000 miles a year, so it’s a good thing [retired].”

For its part, the “Anonymous Conclave of 10” appeared to call for a review of Stika’s resignation and the possibility of his reinstatement.

“We urge the relevant ecclesial authorities to revisit the circumstances surrounding Bishop Stika’s departure with an open heart and a discerning spirit. Justice demands no less,” the text said.

Asked about the letter’s apparent support for him to return to episcopal ministry, Stika told The Pillar that “I have no restrictions [on ministry], but right now I’m taking care of Cardinal [Justin] Rigali, who’s going to be 89,” and that he was working on on his health issues.

“That’s my life right now. I’m happy. I’m a priest, I do ministry, and I just think [Pillar editor-in-chief] JD Flynn is a horrible person,” the bishop said, referencing his previous charges that he had been unfairly covered by the media.

On Tuesday, Stika also called into question previous coverage by The Pillar of his time in ministry in the Knoxville diocese.

The bishop said The Pillar had reported “stuff like I accepted a deacon from another diocese, a transitional [deacon] who had some troubles. Never happened. [Flynn] inferred that I was taking too many gay seminarians. Never happened. That we were taking money from different accounts to pay for the cathedral. Never happened.” 

“So, if you write for The Pillar, in fact, I’m going to sue you as soon as a couple court cases are finished,” Stika said. 

“So anyway, good luck in your work,” the bishop concluded. “I don’t know who sent the letter. I saw signatures on the letter. It was a surprise to me. I didn’t elicit anything and I just posted it because a lot of people have said the same thing to me.”

During his time as Knoxville’s bishop, Stika was accused of protecting Wojciech Sobczuk, a seminarian accused multiple times of sexual assault. 

Stika in 2021 admitted to The Pillar that he interfered with a diocesan review board investigation into the allegation that Sobczuk raped a parish organist, telling The Pillar that the seminarian was the victim of the alleged sexual assault, not the aggressor.

The bishop is also accused of mishandling other sexual misconduct allegations in the diocese, and has been accused by his presbyterate of financial mismanagement, along with bullying and harassment. 

The Pillar first reported in April 2021 that Stika was facing the prospect of a Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigation into charges that he interfered with a diocesan review board investigation, in order to protect Sobczuk from the allegation of sexual assault. 

Stika admitted a close relationship with Sobczuk, who periodically lived in Stika’s house during his tenure as a diocesan seminarian.

The Pillar’s reporting found records showing that Stika had given Sobczuk thousands in diocesan funds while he was a seminarian, allocating a monthly stipend exceeding that of other seminarians, and providing for trips, laptops, and car repairs for Sobczuk.

In May 2021, Stika admitted to The Pillar that he had removed George Prosser, a retired TVA investigator appointed by the diocesan review board to probe the allegation that Sobczuk had sexually assaulted a parish organist in the diocese.

Stika removed Prosser because, the bishop said, the investigator “was asking all these questions” during the course of his duties. 

Stika insisted that he “knew in [his] heart” that Sobczuk was innocent, and appointed an investigator who interviewed only Sobczuk before filing a report on the subject, despite the fact that Sobczuk had been accused of a second instance of assault, allegedly against a fellow seminarian, leading to his dismissal from academic formation at St. Meinrad Seminary.

The parish organist filed last year a lawsuit against Stika and the diocese, and refiled in January of this year, after the diocese argued successfully in court that the former parish organist should not be permitted to file the lawsuit anonymously.

The suit drew largely from Stika’s admissions to The Pillar regarding his handling of the allegations against Sobczuk. The suit also included records showing that Stika had given the organist a significant gift soon after the alleged assault, and taken Sobczuk and the organist out to dinner together. 

In April legal filings, Stika admitted that he had told priests of the diocese on multiple occasions that the parish organist was the aggressor in a sexual encounter with Sobczuk, despite the organist’s rape allegations.

Stika also confirmed The Pillar’s report that in August 2021, the bishop took Sobczuk on a 10-day road trip vacation with Cardinal Justin Rigali — even while Sobczuk had been by then dismissed from St. Meinrad Seminary on charges of sexual assault unrelated to parish organist.

​​And Stika has admitted that after Sobczuk was dismissed from St. Meinrad, the bishop kept him on as a diocesan seminarian to ensure that the young man — a native of Poland — would not run afoul of visa laws before he enrolled in college courses. 

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported in May that  — after Sobczuk was dismissed from seminary over sexual assault allegations and eventually dismissed as a diocesan seminarian — Stika decided the Knoxville diocese would pay his undergraduate tuition at Saint Louis University.

The allegations of Stika’s administrative misconduct were first investigated in 2021 by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the now-retired Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, and leader of the metropolitan province which includes the Diocese of Knoxville.

While The Pillar confirmed that a report sent to Rome noted concerns about Stika’s leadership, the Vatican declined continually since 2021 to officially acknowledge the investigation.

But priests continued to raise concern about Stika, eventually holding a meeting in 2022 with Kurtz’ successor, Archbishop Shelton Fabre, who now leads the Louisville archdiocese.

Fabre is believed by Knoxville priests to have asked the Vatican to continue its investigation into Stika.

In November 2022, 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 publicly from that visitation, even while the bishop faces mounting local pressure.

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 — the tax aimed to pay down a larger debt connected to Knoxville’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

And Stika has faced criticism for debt the diocese incurred when it reportedly spent more than $42 million on the cathedral’s construction. 

One priest with knowledge of diocesan administration told The Pillar last year that Stika had taken cash from internally designated diocesan funds — the Pope Francis Charity Fund, and a diocesan low-income scholarship fund — in order to cover diocesan operations, largely because of the financial squeeze placed on the diocese after cathedral construction.

The bishop has disputed that charge.

In September 2021, 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.

Sources in the diocese say that Stika had become increasingly erratic as he faced external pressure, threatening priests of the diocese with retribution, if he believed they were among those making reports about him, and continuing to solicit funds to support Sobczuk, who is now a university student outside the diocese.

But despite the mounting evidence against him — much of it found in diocesan records — Stika insisted for the last two years that he had done nothing wrong, calling the criticism against him “fake news,” and promising journalists to “sue your ass” over critical news coverage.

Stika has also been accused of retributive leadership of his priests, especially in the years since Vos estis lux mundi reports were filed against him. One priest, Fr. Brent Shelton, left the diocese in April, with sources saying the priest departed because Stika had spent years threatening him.

The bishop had long insisted that the allegations against him stem from a very small number of critics in the diocese.