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Bishop Stika wants 'the whole story' ahead of Vatican investigation

Bishop Rick Stika, who is only 63, has had both a heart attack and major heart surgeries. A few years ago he lost sight in his right eye. He has severe diabetes, which gives him chronic pain, and he’s walked with a limp since he fractured his foot in five places, falling from a curb while on vacation. He says he should have surgery on the foot, but because of the diabetes, there is risk that surgery could turn into amputation. 

“So I live with that. I tell people, you know, you’ve gotta laugh a little bit at life. I’ve trained this eye to close and leave this one open so I can take snoozes at meetings,” the bishop jokes. 

The limp gets more pronounced when he’s tired, I notice.

“Yeah. The limp kinda bothers me. So I just kinda pace myself, and I’ve taken some meds for it and stuff. And I really haven’t slacked off because of it. That’s life.” 

“A lot of people are worse off than me.”

Stika gave me his health report in the narthex of Knoxville’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, where he’d taken me for an after-dinner tour, well after the church had closed for the day. The bishop is proud of the cathedral, which was dedicated in 2018, nine years after Stika became the bishop of East Tennessee.

Before I could ask him any follow-up questions, Stika was into the church proper, trying to figure out how to turn on the lights, and pointing out to me odds and ends about the architecture. He showed me the ceiling stars covering the sprinkler system, and the Stations of the Cross, refurbished from the former diocesan cathedral, which is now a church hall behind the new place.

As we walked the center aisle, the bishop told me about the unusual relic in the church’s altar.  

“There’s a box that has a toothbrush in it. John Paul II’s. He left it in St. Louis. I didn’t know what to do with it. And I thought, well, it’s got his DNA. So I had a box made for it and it’s in there. So you know, unique.”

Bishop Stika showed me around the cathedral with the kind of “dad energy” that pastors tend to exude when they’ve built a new church. 

The bishop wanted to make sure I saw the clever cost-saving measures, like the faux marble columns on the baldacchino that look real, even up close, and the poured concrete flooring that sparkles like granite. And he wanted to show me the place where portraits of his two dogs, Rosie and Molly, were painted in the cupola, at the feet of St. Francis.

Stika had the same energy earlier that night, when he’d shown me the garden behind his house, and a baby squirrel he’d rescued after it had a fall from a tree in his yard. The bishop named it Rocky. 

Rocky lives now in a spacious cage on the bishop’s back patio, with comfortable bedding and ample squirrel food, whatever that consists of. I forgot to ask. 

Bishop Stika with Rocky, a squirrel rescued after a calamitous fall from a tree branch. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

A few days later, the bishop had that same dad energy again, when we visited an elementary school, and he joked with students finishing their exams.

To one seventh-grader, wearing a ponytail at the back of her head, he couldn’t help himself.

“I’ve got a real serious question for you. Ok? And it’s important. Do ponies wear people-tails at the back of their heads?”

The class groaned, and the ponytailed girl blushed and grinned politely. As a dad myself, I appreciated the effort. Game respects game, as it were. 

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The bishop and I visited several classrooms. In each one, he joked with students. He urged them to follow Christ. He asked them about summer plans and mentioned to boys the seminary. He seemed in his element.

When we left the school, Bishop Stika said he’s energized when he spends time with students.   

“I loved being a parish priest. I just love it. I love being a pastor,” he told me as we walked away from the school.

“I tell people I sell insurance. You’ve got, you know, whole life, term life, and eternal life. You get it? Insurance salesman?”

“Anyway, people love that.”

Bishop Rick Stika talked, laughed, and joked with students during a May 12 visit to a Knoxville Catholic school. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.


‘The whole story’

I went to Knoxville at Bishop Stika’s invitation. The Pillar reported last month that the Congregation for Bishops in Rome had received complaints about Stika’s leadership in the Knoxville diocese, and was considering initiating an apostolic visitation, or investigation, in the diocese. 

The complaints, which came from both priests and laity in the diocese, focused on an investigation into sexual misconduct on the part of a diocesan seminarian. Priests alleged the bishop had an unusually close relationship to the seminarian, and had interfered with the investigation. 

Stika at first said the complaints were untrue; that procedures and policies had been followed completely. Eventually he told me that he had removed an investigator looking into the case, because, he said, he’d asked too many questions and caused confusion. The bishop replaced the investigator with a retired police officer whose investigation consisted only of interviewing the accused seminarian.

But Stika said some priests who complained had personal biases against him. That they didn’t understand the whole story. And that, he explained, is why he invited me to Tennessee. To tell the whole story. 

I told him I would do my best.

Stika sees “the whole story” as a well-run diocese, which is growing the faith in a missionary part of the country, building vibrant Catholic schools and thriving apostolates. The bishop pointed out to me the presence of religious sisters in the diocese, and pointed out support for the diocesan annual appeal. And he mentioned, often, that his diocese is one of few in the country with its “own” cardinal: Stika’s longtime friend and mentor, retired Cardinal Justin Rigali, lives with the bishop, in a stately house purchased for them, the bishop told me, by a California foundation.

But priests, lay leaders, and former employees told me a different story.

While in Knoxville, I talked with about 10 diocesan priests, all of whom said their diocese is in “crisis,” and described their bishop with words like “bully,” “narcissist” and “vindictive.” Some described a pattern of relationships they characterized as “grooming” — not necessarily sexually inappropriate, several told me, but seemingly disordered, and publicly embarrassing. When I asked them to suggest a priest who might support the bishop, none did. One priest laughed at the question.

Priests and one former employee also raised concerns about financial administration. One senior priest expressed concern that debt is snowballing, and that the diocese could soon become bankrupt. And several expressed concerns about undistributed pandemic relief funds. 

Priests in the diocese asked to speak with me anonymously, because, they said, they feared the bishop’s response to their remarks. They mentioned a whistleblowing priest threatened with canonical penalties last month. In light of their concerns, I granted the request. 

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Before I report aspects of “the whole story,” I want to talk about methodology. 

It is newsworthy, and worth reporting, that reports about Bishop Stika have been sent to Rome. It is also newsworthy that a Vatican investigation seems to be getting underway, and that the bishop admitted to replacing an investigator amid a misconduct investigation

And I think trying to get “the whole story” around that news is worthwhile.

But I don’t like to write gossip. I don’t want to report salacious things for the sake of clicks. So during a week in Knoxville, I checked myself often, to ask whether I was actually reporting news, or whether I was instead amplifying gossip, or taking the ordinary frustrations of diocesan life and reframing them as something more. 

I have spent a lot of time in diocesan chanceries and among priests. I know that tension, disagreement, politics, and grudges are not unusual in those environments; I have tried to take that knowledge into account.

Some interviews I conducted are not included in this report, because they made claims or complaints that didn’t seem especially unusual to me. Others I didn’t report because they didn’t add anything but salacious speculation.  

And as I interviewed people in Knoxville, I asked them why they were talking to me, instead of talking to a Vatican investigator, or to the apostolic nuncio, or to an HR or safe environment person in the diocese.

Several priests said they are concerned that a Vatican investigation won’t look seriously at the constellation of issues the diocese is facing, or the crisis of leadership they perceive. Several expressed concern that Cardinal Rigali, who has sometimes referred to Stika as a “son,” would use influence in Rome to protect the bishop. Many expressed skepticism that, without public accountability, the Church’s process for justice would actually work for them.

Some lay people told me the same thing. But others said something much simpler: With a diocese they believed to be in crisis, they just had no idea where to go. Or with whom to speak. Or how to get help — help they said was sorely needed — for their local Church.

Those concerns are a part of “the whole story.” Even three years after the McCarrick scandal began, if you think your diocese has problems, or your bishop does, where should you actually go? Who should you call? And will it matter?

On the precipice of an apostolic visitation — an investigation authorized by the Vatican — people in Knoxville told me they were talking to me about their diocese only because they didn’t yet know who else they could to talk with, or how.  


 ‘What the hell is this?’

About ten complaints were sent last month from the Knoxville diocese to the Congregation for Bishops, Vatican officials told The Pillar. They were sent through a pipeline set up after the McCarrick scandal of 2018, and meant to address bishops who engaged in sexual abuse or misconduct, or covered it up. 

The Knoxville complaints say Stika’s interference in at least one case constitutes a cover-up. Stika disagrees

But those complaints also say Stika has a pattern of inappropriate relationships with young men — not necessarily sexual, but inappropriate, and public, and a source of scandal. Some of those relationships have involved international trips, selfies posted on social media, and excessive gifts — in one case, even a car, priests said. Several priests referred to those relationships as “grooming.” 

The most recent of those relationships involved the recently dismissed seminarian, but there were others before that, priests told me.

I raised those allegations to Stika. The bishop told me that he has been blessed with good friendships, which are important to him.

“I always believe God sends people into our lives at particular times,” he told me. 

He added that his friendships have been misunderstood and mischaracterized.

I raised three allegations of “grooming” to the bishop; the three I heard mentioned most often. In each case, Stika offered me explanations. He said that some priests judged him unfairly, that he acted appropriately, and that he had “nothing to hide.’

Stika said he has not had an inappropriate relationship with the recently dismissed seminarian. He said he had invited him to live in the bishop’s house so he could better evaluate him. He explained that he replaced an investigator reviewing the seminarian’s alleged misconduct because the investigator was bungling things, and because he “knew” in his heart, he said, “that [seminarian] was absolutely innocent.”

I next mentioned to Stika a former lay employee of the diocese, who had lived in a diocesan residence, and took international trips with Stika. Several priests told me the bishop appeared to be unusually and inappropriately close to the employee, for more than a year. Several recalled him, in sotto voce tones, as “the bishop’s friend.”

Dave Wells, a Knoxville Catholic who worked at the diocesan cathedral from 2013 until 2018, is among those who told me that Stika seemed to be “infatuated” with the employee. 

“I was very disturbed by that whole relationship, and there were a lot of people that were disturbed by that whole relationship. It just felt like grooming,” Wells told me.

But Stika told me that he was not infatuated with the lay employee. He said he developed a friendship with the employee, who helped him learn to work out in the gym, and got him through a lonely period — a “low time in my life.”

“He was a true friend in the gym, and he pulled me out of a health scare,” Stika said. “But there was no attraction.”

“Well, I was attracted to his intellect...and plus he was helping me in the gym,” the bishop qualified unprompted, before he explained to me in detail some moral issues the employee struggled with, and his aim to help with those.

Still, he said, “he helped save my life. And I crawled out of that hole.”

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When I next mentioned Tony Dickerson, a laicized priest who says he was also groomed by Stika, the bishop did something similar: He explained to me in detail the moral issues Dickerson struggled with, and said he had tried to help. 

But the help went sour, the bishop said, and now, “I think he probably hates me.”

Dickerson told me he doesn’t hate the bishop. I spoke with him on the phone before I visited Knoxville. Before he was voluntarily laicized, Dickerson said, he served for about a year as a driver and liturgical emcee for the bishop, while also serving in other assignments.

“He had this thing over me, and so he used that,” Dickerson said, acknowledging that as a young priest, he had disclosed personal struggles to the bishop. 

It is not uncommon for a bishop to choose a younger priest to drive with him to parish liturgies, and assist with Masses as liturgical emcee — ensuring that the Mass flows smoothly, and each priest’s role goes according to plan. 

But Dickerson said Stika seemed to expect a deeper relationship, one he often felt uncertain about how to fulfill.

“I think he was looking for a protege or something, but if you have a handicap or something’s happened to you, he’s going to use that against you. And that’s what happened with me.”  

Dickerson said during that year, the bishop’s behavior was erratic — at times aggressive toward him, at times possessive, at times gossiping with him, at times gossiping about him. 

On one occasion, he said, the bishop made him sexually uncomfortable. 

While Stika and Dickerson were visiting a parish, they had some downtime, and the bishop took the car to get gas. He returned to the parish, and they talked with the pastor a while, before he and Dickerson went back to the car — Dickerson would make the drive home.

“So I turn on the car and on the [satellite] radio is the Playboy channel. I look over at him and he's gauging my reaction. And I'm like, ‘What the hell is this?’ And then he turns it off. He said, ‘Oh, I don't know what happened there.’” 

“I think he just wanted to see what I would do,” Dickerson said, “but it was just weird, man. I still don’t understand it.”

“But a lot of priests were telling me he was grooming me. I don’t know if it was for a physical relationship. Or just, you know, he wanted power. Or if it was an emotional thing, you know?”

“The guys would jokingly — they saw the dynamic, and they would joke about it at presbyteral meetings. They’d say: ‘You’re the BB,’ you know? The bishop’s bitch. So it was getting hard.”

Dickerson said he thought the bishop manipulated and coerced him, and said he was hurt that Stika had told other priests about his moral failures.   

“I personally believe he's a clinical narcissist,” Dickerson said.  

I asked Dickerson why his account shouldn’t be written off as sour grapes — the grumbling discontentment of a former priest. 

He thought about that question for a minute.

“I wanted the bishop to be a father,” he finally told me. “I needed that.”

“I loved the priesthood, man. And I loved the brotherhood of the priesthood. And I loved that term for a bishop: that he’s your father and your brother. And I really did expect to be loved by the bishop. But he made me feel dirty, man.”

“Even my wife would tell you, man, that if it weren’t for him, I would still be a priest.”

Stika told me that Dickerson remembered things wrong. “Tony only emceed for me maybe a couple of times,” he said.

“And you know he lied to me more than once,” Stika added.

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One source close to the Knoxville chancery came to the bishop’s defense. He told me Stika is not always aware of how his friendships might be perceived. Even when he has the best intentions, the source said, the bishop does not appreciate the way in which close public relationships can give scandal. 

A senior priest of the diocese who has worked closely with Stika for years said he thinks the bishop is “trying desperately to form intimate relationships.”

“And I don’t want to be sexual about this. I think he has this great need to have someone in his life that he can intimately share things with and have that be whatever he wants that to be. And again, I don’t want to cross that line of suggesting something sexual, but it is clearly, clearly inappropriate.”

“And what’s disconcerting is that he doesn’t get it.”

“But there’s something that’s just not right in those relationships, and in the fact that he doesn’t see that. Even the fact that he flaunts it. So, I don’t know, but it’s just, it’s just too bad that it’s gotten this far.”  

Several sources told me that diocesan leaders have told Stika frequently that his relationships with young people, especially seminarians and other young men, could become a problem both for the bishop and for the diocese. They especially cautioned about excessive gifts, overseas trips, and the appearance of favoritism. 

But the bishop has not heard that advice, sources told me, or just not heeded it.

“If guys perceive me in a certain way...I don’t understand it, and I can’t help it. What you see is what I am,” Stika said.

“I have never violated my intents for chastity or celibacy. But one of the things I learned is that it can be lonely as a bishop. And of course I want friendships.”

“It’s just kinda lonely,” he said again, mentioning the French priest Michel Quoist’s “Prayer on a Sunday Night.” 


‘All kinds of red flags’

The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart was built in three years, Bishop Stika told me. The bishop said it had to be built because the old cathedral was insufficient for the size of the diocese. Several priests I spoke with agreed with that sentiment. But priests also said that the cathedral project Stika led has been financially calamitous for their small, missionary diocese, and that it will take decades to financially recover. 

Sacred Heart Cathedral (Knoxville, TN) - exterior.jpg
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Knoxville, Tennessee. Credit: Nheyob/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

“What was sold was a $25 million cathedral and a $25 million campaign, and it was going to be paid for. Well, we all knew those were fantasy numbers to begin with. But nobody asked the right question,” one priest in a senior leadership position in the diocese told me. 

“If you asked how much the cathedral cost — well, the cathedral cost between $35 and $36 million. I don’t doubt that. What did the project cost? Well, because they had to buy property, they had to do site work, none of that was in the initial proposal. So the bottom line is the project is a $42 million project.”

“The diocese only approved $25 million, but you ended up with a $42 million cathedral, which basically leaves you with $17 million to fund in a diocese. I mean we are not a rich diocese.”

“A diocese of this size has no business having a $45 million cathedral. The finances — we’re going to be working on them for 50 years. It ain’t gonna go away. Digging our way out of that is going to be a long-lasting thing,” the priest said.

Stika, the priest said “has hidden all the things he’s taken money out of — all our trust funds.”

The priest said he believes that in recent years, Stika has 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.

“What he started doing was taking the cash out of those to fund the cashflow of the diocese and basically put in an IOU. So, say these funds are only getting a half percent interest or a percent interest, and he says we’ll take cash out and we’ll use it, and we’ll pay it back plus 3 percent.”

“Well, you have to have money to put money back,” the priest said.

“I just have a real problem of conscience with how we’re doing that. And how he’s trying to divide up and hide the cost of the cathedral and the debt the diocese has. But we’re doing it and trying to cash flow through all of that.” 

“We are,” the priest said, “nearly bankrupt from a cash flow perspective. There’s just not going to be cash there.”

The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Knoxville, Tennessee. Credit: Nheyob/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

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Marcy Meldahl was the director of human resources, employment services, and benefits in the Knoxville diocese from 2004 until 2014.

Over pizza in Knoxville, she told me that she’d clashed with Stika over ethical issues during her employment at the diocese. Meldahl told me that when she found discrepancies in employee benefit records — discrepancies which could cost employees thousands in retirement benefits — Stika and other chancery officials pushed back on efforts to set things to right.  

And like priests in the diocese, Meldahl charged that Stika arranged for the diocese to withdraw cash from designated funds in order to finance cathedral construction and fund diocesan operations. She alleges that cash was borrowed from both a reserve fund for employee medical claims and from a Catholic education scholarship fund.

Meldahl claimed: “The bishop said to trustees of that scholarship fund: ‘I’m going to take that money, put in an IOU, and that IOU will pay you greater interest than what you’re getting now.’ Well, the IOU is only good if there’s going to be money to pay it back.”

“And that’s the money that’s given to help pay tuition,” she said, “for people who can’t pay for Catholic education. And it’s given for that reason.” 

Moreover, Meldahl said, “the bishop did not go through the procedures Rome required to build this cathedral.” 

Jim Wogan, spokesman for the Knoxville diocese, did not answer directly questions about whether the diocese was borrowing money from its charity and scholarship funds, and whether it could pay that money back. 

Nor did the diocese answer questions about cathedral debt obligations.

Instead, Wogan said in an emailed statement that “the diocese has nothing to hide regarding its budget and finances and, in fact, each fiscal year we undergo a thorough and independent audit, the results of which are reviewed by our finance council before being sent to the provincial metropolitan. The diocesan budget and financial statements, with auditor notes, are published in the diocesan newspaper and are always available on the diocesan website.”


Wogan did answer questions about another looming financial issue in the diocese: the status of millions in Paycheck Protection Program funds that have not yet been distributed to the schools and parishes for which they were approved.

In April 2020, the diocese received $7.2 million in federal PPP funds, intended to cover payroll expenses in two diocesan high schools, parish elementary schools, and other ministry sites. The money has not been distributed for use.

It sits currently in a diocesan bank account, Wogan told me. 

The diocese “is still waiting on the SBA to determine whether the PPP funds will be classified as grants before they are distributed,” he explained.

I pointed out to Wogan that all PPP funds are loans, according to federal guidelines. Those loans can be forgiven if at least 60 percent of funds are spent on payroll costs, and if employees are not laid off or hit with pay reductions. The only way to know that PPP funds will be “grants,” or least forgiven loans, is to actually spend the money in line with federal rules. 

The diocese did not offer further comment.

“I can’t get this daggum PPP money from a year ago,” one priest told me. “And I’ve been spending money all this time, and just waiting.”

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‘My life got different’

“My first year I went to seminary high school for the Augustinians,” Bishop Stika told me, as we drove across Knoxville on the interstate.

“And then I discovered that Dan Champion’s sister was cute. So I came back, went back to St. Louis, went to a Catholic high school, co-ed. Then St. Louis University, started as pre-med but finished with a business degree. I had been dating this girl for a while, and thinking about possible marriage and stuff, and then I thought about priesthood again.”

“So I went into the college seminary to prove to myself that I didn’t have a vocation to the priesthood. So I got a second bachelors, this time in philosophy, and then it just seemed like the right thing to do. So, I stayed in the seminary and I was ordained in ‘85.”

“The first five years were beautiful,” he told me. 

We were driving amid a tour of the diocese the bishop arranged. We’d seen the cathedral school, and then an incredible food bank, and were headed for lunch at Knoxville Catholic High.

Bishop Stika with Tina, a volunteer member of the Knoxville Ladies of Charity. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

I wasn’t exactly fair to Bishop Stika: He was navigating, and I made him tell me his vocation story at the same time. We overshot the high school, and doubled back through town. That gave him time to explain to me his priestly ministry in St. Louis, his native city.

His first five years were in a parish he loved: Mary, Queen of Peace. It had a school, and a pastor he got along with well. 

“But then, well, after five years, my life got different.”

“I got a call to work in the young adult office, and that was also the year my mom was dying. My dad had already died.”

Stika moved to a new parish, and, within a few years, he found himself with a new job, and a new boss.

“I got a call from the new archbishop [Rigali], and he said I was going to be his secretary. And he said ‘Well, go to my office, and start sorting mail.’ And that was my training!”

“It was completely out of my background, out of the blue.”

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Stika began working for Rigali in 1994. He was first the archbishop’s secretary, then archdiocesan chancellor, and eventually vicar general, the priest who serves as the archbishop’s principal administrative deputy. 

Rigali had become Archbishop of St. Louis after three decades of diplomatic and administrative positions in the Vatican.

“We were direct opposites in so many ways, but we got along great,” Stika told me.

“I knew St. Louis so well. I knew the politics, I knew the people —  I knew lots and lots of people —  I knew the priests. And then, so, I mean, it sounds arrogant, but I taught him how to be a bishop in the United States.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali. Credit: Diocese of Knoxville.

The friendship between the pair continued even after Rigali became Philadelphia’s archbishop in 2003, and was after that named a cardinal. 

In 2009, when Stika was named to Knoxville, Rigali was a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, which assists the pope in choosing new bishops. In Tennessee, Rigali consecrated Stika a bishop.

It is widely held in Church circles that the cardinal lobbied to see Stika appointed a bishop. Stika told me he’d never asked Rigali about that, and “even if I did, he’d never tell.”

In 2011, two years after Stika went to Knoxville, Rigali retired, and moved into Stika’s house.

Cardinal Justin Rigali consecrated Bishop Stika a bishop on March 12, 2009. A photo of the consecration hangs in Stika’s home. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

I had dinner with Stika and the cardinal in Knoxville. They reminded me of the Odd Couple: Rigali reserved, patrician, diplomatic; Stika gregarious and casual. Their friendship was obvious.

Stika told me he celebrates Mass most days with Rigali in their house chapel. The cardinal, who is now 86 and relies on a walker, was an engaged conversationalist, and spent nearly an hour showing me memorabilia from his service in the curia of Pope St. John Paul II.


‘Legacy and loyalty’

Priests of the diocese say that understanding the friendship with Rigali is crucial to understanding Stika. And they say that both Rigali’s well-known mishandling of clerical sexual abuse cases in Philadelphia, and the cardinal’s penchant for spending in the Philadelphia archdiocese, mirror some of the issues that have them concerned in Knoxville. 

But priests of the Knoxville diocese also say that while Stika has had a long and trusting friendship with Rigali, their bishop has not found ways to earn trust among his own presbyterate, the priests of Knoxville.

Some priests described the bishop as a “bully,” and others said that Stika has a vindictive streak. 

“For myself, I try to stay here at the parish. Out of sight is out of the line of fire,” one pastor told me.

In March 2020, a priest of the diocese circulated an email to other local priests, saying Stika’s leadership was a problem in the diocese, and was “getting worse.”

The email accused Stika of “lying, bullying, bad example-setting, shaming, overspending, not following through with what he said he would do, and going through the guise of consulting but not taking any of our suggestions into consideration.”

“My heart and my prayers go out to the bishop,” the priest wrote, adding he “is not capable of understanding how his behavior affects us.”

I challenged the priests I spoke with about those characterizations. I told them that priests everywhere complain about their bishop.

I asked: What makes your complaints, in Knoxville, different from anyplace else? Why is the situation so serious?

“I could not name you anybody that’s a diocesan priest here that trusts him,” one priest told me. “That’s what’s different.”

“I would not say it’s personal,” a priest added. “We don’t like what’s going on; we can’t get any straight answers on anything. It’s all convoluted.”

“I think it’s gone from a smoldering wick to a fire,” a priest added. “I am not into bishop-bashing, but I’d say in this diocese, I don’t care if you run liberal or conservative, the one thing that unites us as priests right now is that we don’t trust this man. And that’s scary. And it’s hard.”

Another priest said it speaks to the state of the diocese that in recent years, priests have left the diocese, or retired early, or even left ministry at an alarming rate. He rattled off the names of some such priests, quickly reaching 10 or 11.

Those names, he said, point to a diocese in need of change. 

One priest put it directly: “What’s different is that I’m talking to you. I wouldn’t be doing that at all — I wouldn’t dream of it —  if I thought things were just going to work out.”

One senior pastor in the diocese took a philosophical approach:

“Bishop Stika cares about two things: legacy and loyalty,” the longtime pastor told me. “What do people think of me, and how will I be remembered?”

Those concerns impact decision-making in a way that’s caused harm to the priests of the diocese, the pastor said.

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Bishop Stika disagreed with those characterizations. 

When we toured the cathedral, the bishop told me he didn’t think about himself when he oversaw its construction. 

“This isn’t Rick Stika’s legacy,” he said. “This is a legacy for the Diocese of Knoxville. This is a testament to the faith here.”

As to loyalty, Stika said he believes he has it.

“It really just hurts that priests would misconstrue something. Because I really do believe in general I have had a very good relationship with the priests. I’ve had a lot of affirmations since all this started,” Stika told me.

“Division is human,” the bishop said, “but I really think if you were to do a survey of all the people in this diocese, the results would be interesting. I really have gotten a lot of support.”

One senior pastor had a similar idea. “If you send us a survey — if the apostolic delegate sent a survey out, well the results would just be damning. Because something needs to change.”

A survey may be unlikely. But in Knoxville, two very different versions of “the whole story” about the diocese and its bishop have emerged. With an apostolic visitation seemingly set to begin, It will be up to the Holy See, it seems, to decide between those accounts. 

Bishop Stika, for his part, told me he’s hopeful things will find a way of working out.

“I’m very blessed,” he told me.

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More about unfolding allegations in the Diocese of Knoxville

Knoxville bishop replaced investigator in seminarian probe, May 17

Stika accepted deacon accused of misconduct; Knoxville priests criticize 'pattern' of leadershipApril 29

Stika facing likely Vos estis investigationApril 23