Gone but not forgotten: Months later, former Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika is threatening priests

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

April 22, 2024

By Tyler Whetstone

Though he hasn’t been employed by the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville for nearly a year, former Bishop Richard Stika continues to make his presence felt, contacting whistleblowers directly with threats of a lawsuit, including one who is a key witness in the sexual assault lawsuit against the church.

That lawsuit was filed by a former diocesan employee who alleges a former diocesan seminarian raped him and details how the diocese, 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.

As complaints about Stika’s leadership and handling of allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct piled up in the diocese, the bishop offered his resignation and it was accepted by Pope Francis in June 2023.

But Stika has continued to try to assert control over some of the priests in the Knoxville diocese. He sent a text message recently, for instance, to three priests, including the Rev. Brent Shelton, who left Knoxville in April 2023 after he was told he was being reassigned, a move church watchdogs viewed as retaliation.

Shelton recently filed a formal complaint against the diocese’s attorney with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which polices attorney conduct.

Know News is not naming the other recipients of Stika’s message because they are constrained by church authorities from talking to the media and were unwilling to discuss the message.

“Happy Spy Wednesday,” reads the opening of the text.

“And it all started with (name of priest Knox News is not identifying)! I will never understand how anyone could be so hateful to destroy the ministry of any cleric and in (name of priest Knox News is not identifying)’s case to bring a former seminarian to the point of suicide. It is all documented, my attorneys are ready and the information will be shared with my successor.”

Shelton said Stika’s messages are both threatening and intimidating.

“If bishops keep getting away with threatening and retaliating against whistleblowers, I’m afraid children and vulnerable adults will never be safe in the Church,” he told Knox News in an email. “The diocese needs to move forward, but we cannot do that if priests must live under the shadow of threats like these from the man we looked up to as our spiritual father for over a decade.”

Stika responded to questions from Knox News by text message and denied his messages to priests were threatening.

“Did not threaten at all. Just informed them about a possible lawsuit but I have decided not to include them in a lawsuit,” he said. “I have developed some additional heart issues over the last months and decided it is not worth it. I have moved on. I am retired. Plus, I have not found you to present anything that is balanced.”

The most recent messages were sent March 27, and Knox News viewed them. Shelton sent a list of questions to the diocese about the messages April 1 and 10 days later he received a “good faith” response acknowledging the questions from Louisville Archbishop Shelton Fabre, who is acting as the apostolic administrator until a new bishop is named.

The perception of some priests that Stika is threatening them is similar behavior they and others flagged during his years in Knoxville.

In a 2023 court filing, for example, Stika admitted he told a room full of priests that the man who says he was raped by the former seminarian was actually the predator, not the other way around. He also admitted to telling a separate group of priests that the man groomed the seminarian accused of rape.

“I’m sad but not surprised,” David Clohessy, former national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, wrote in an email. “This sometimes happens when church officials let a bad bishop quietly slink away without disciplining or defrocking him.”

Is it witness intimidation?

Mitchell Garabedian, a world-renowned clergy sex abuse attorney whose work helped break open the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston in the early 2000s, told Knox News Stika is potentially tampering with witnesses in the lawsuit that names him among the defendants.

“The question is (was) he intimidating the witness,” Garabedian said. “If he is intimidating the witness, then the judge in the case will look at what was said and whether the witness was intimidated and decide what sanctions should be brought against Stika.

“Witness intimidation can turn into a criminal matter if it is found the witness is being intimidated and being influenced by a person.”

He went on to say Stika’s messages are unusual but not unprecedented. Typically, those types of messages are kept within secret church files.

“It sounds like bishop Stika is still a powerful person within the church who might be trying to influence the outcome of the case,” he said.

Attorney Patrick Thronson, who represents the man who filed the lawsuit that names Stika, declined to comment about whether he thought the former bishop is tampering with witnesses, but he did say he plans to take up Stika’s messages with the court.