A news report published this month in the diocesan newspaper of the Diocese of Knoxville has become a source of some wonderment — and something of a metaphor — among priests and laity in the Tennessee diocese.
The report opened at a March 19 Mass celebrated by Knoxville’s Bishop Rick Stika, on the occasion of his 14th episcopal anniversary.
During the Mass, Stika reportedly realized that he wasn’t wearing his episcopal ring, and began asking the people to pray. He reportedly thought he might have left it at a gas station, on the way to the parish where he celebrated the Mass.
One parishioner, seated in the front row, spotted the ring under Stika’s chair. The bishop picked it up, held it aloft, and declared a miracle.
While parishioners laughed, Stika seemed sincere.
“It really is a miracle,” he said afterward. “I was ready to go back to the gas station and start looking through their trash cans and on the ground. Who knows where it could have fallen off? I am so grateful.”
Ockham’s Razor would suggest that the ring probably fell off while Stika was celebrating Mass, and probably while he was seated in the chair under which it rolled.
But the bishop’s take — that a miracle had occurred — has seen the story passed around the Diocese of Knoxville, where tensions between Stika and his presbyterate have become acute over the last two years.
To some in the diocese, the story is a testament to what they see as Stika’s semi-charmed kinda life — that whatever difficulty Stika faces, large or small, he seems to escape unscathed.
To others, it reflects Stika’s viewpoint: “He’d rather believe that God moved a hunk of gold from the gas station to the parish than consider the possibility that he just dropped his ring on the floor like a normal person,” one diocesan leader suggested.
Whatever the meaning — if there is any — the story is circulating exactly two years after The Pillar first reported that Stika was facing the prospect of a Vatican investigation over allegations that he significantly mismanaged a sexual abuse case in the diocese.
And some priests in Knoxville say that after a difficult two years, they’re worried the Vatican has dropped their concerns like a discarded gold ring — and that it would take a miracle for anyone to pick them up again.
Bishop Stika is facing a number of allegations, which are familiar to the readers of The Pillar, or readers of the local press in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The bishop has conceded that he accepted into the Knoxville diocese a seminarian who was not endorsed by his diocesan vocations office — a seminarian with an allegedly rocky history in Jesuit formation before he found the diocese.
Diocesan records show that Stika expended considerable funds to support the seminarian during his studies at St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana — well beyond the ordinary stipends provided to other seminarians. And The Pillar has confirmed that the Knoxville seminarian was dismissed from St. Meinrad’s after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, one of which is described by seminary sources as sexual assault.
After the seminarian was dismissed from academic formation, Stika has admitted that he kept him on as a diocesan seminarian to ensure that the young man — a native of Poland — would not run into visa issues before he enrolled in a college program. And Stika has also admitted that after the dismissal, he took the seminarian on a 10-day road trip with Cardinal Justin Rigali — after he had previously taken the seminarian on trips to Rome and elsewhere.
But most concerning, as pertains to that seminarian, is that Stika has admitted that when the seminarian was accused of raping a parish organist, the bishop removed an experienced investigator appointed by the diocesan review board, replacing him with a friend, who asked a few questions only of the accused seminarian, and then concluded his investigation.
Stika told The Pillar he made that move because he “knew in [his] heart” that the seminarian was “innocent,” and that “somebody has to stand up for people when you think they’re innocent.”
The bishop has also admitted that soon after the alleged rape, Stika gave a significant gift to the parish organist, and took both him and the seminarian out to dinner. And the bishop has insisted he did his own investigation, and told both priests and The Pillar that it was the organist, not the seminarian, who was guilty of sexual assault. But if Stika believes that the organist is actually guilty of sexually assaulting a seminarian, he has not done anything to urge a criminal prosecution, or seemingly to impede any future ecclesiastical employment.
The removal of the investigator, against the judgment of the diocesan review board, is what saw a dozen or so priests make a Vos estis lux mundi report to the Vatican, but it’s not the only criticism Stika faces.
He’s also accused of failing to address another priest accused of sexually assaulting a grieving parishioner, and of bullying a woman who in 2017 reported a priest’s inappropriate conduct with a minor. Priests have also lamented that Stika imposed a 25% tax on money their parish schools received from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, without the proper canonical consultations, in order to pay down debt on a massive cathedral project of his undertaking.
And then there are charges that Stika has been lewd and inappropriate toward priests, harshly punitive and dismissive of them, and lost their trust. It’s for that reason that 11 of them asked in September 2021 that the apostolic nuncio provide their diocese “merciful relief” from Stika’s leadership — a request that has not yet seen a formal response from the nunciature.
But it was concern about the seminarian that prompted Vos estis complaints in 2021, and has led to two separate visitations of the diocese — the first by now-retired Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, and the second, last year, by Bishops Michael Burbidge and Barry Knestout of Virginia.
The Pillar has confirmed that the conveyance of the first report to the Vatican contained a clear and unsparing assessment of Stika’s capacity for leadership. It is not clear what recommendations were made after the second visitation, for which participants were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.
But Stika has endured these two years, and in recent weeks has spoken about his hopes for a promising and long future in the diocese.
While Stika’s brash rhetoric has become for some observers on the national scene a source nearly of amusement — and the bishop has been privately the butt of jokes among some bishops — in Knoxville the priests are not laughing.
Priests say that Stika has become obsessed with sussing out his critics — he believes they are only a small contingent of the diocesan presbyterate — and with arranging for punitive assignments, public humiliation, or outright intimidation. Some priests are reportedly considering early retirement, looking for other dioceses, and at least one priest, the subject of regular criticism from Stika, petitioned this month for an extended leave of absence from the diocese, and left the diocese. His confreres say they fear he will not be back, and that he will not be the last to go.
Of course, Stika claims the criticisms against him come from only a few discontented priests, and are spurred on by “fake news” reporting. In Knoxville, at least one priest in the diocese, vicar general Fr.David Boettner, has taken sideswipes at the local reporter covering the diocese, lamenting that the diocese is covered by “sports writers” who don’t understand how the Church works. But The Pillar has aimed repeatedly to find Knoxville priests willing to speak on Stika’s behalf, even off-record, and none have come forward.
Some priests say they’ve gotten a sympathetic hearing from Louisville’s Archbishop Shelton Fabre — believed to be the catalyst for the second apostolic visitation — but the metropolitan archbishop can offer little more than sympathy; he isn’t actually empowered to intervene with Knoxville, his suffragan see.
Priests and other diocesan leaders say that with no communication from Rome, they’re left to wonder why Stika seems to be wearing a Teflon cassock — none of the criticisms made against him, or even his own admissions, seem to stick.
Priests speculate privately about why the Vatican has not responded swiftly to their complaints.
Some wonder if Stika’s longtime friendship with Cardinal Rigali — the retired cardinal lives in Stika’s house — is offering him a measure of protection. Others speculate that Stika must “have some dirt” on Vatican or American officials.
Some priests wonder if despite their testimony, Vatican officials have decided that Stika simply hasn’t done anything wrong — or enough wrong to warrant either some sanction, or an invitation to resign.
A few in Knoxville have theorized — probably assuming too much strategy on the part of the Vatican — that the Holy See will leave Stika in place until litigation in Knoxville is concluded, so that the bishop can become something of a fall guy, held personally liable for misconduct, and thus cost the diocese less in a settlement.
But others have a more despondent outlook — they’ve concluded, with resignation, that no one in the Vatican cares about their situation enough to address it quickly.
“I’m not sure we’ll be viable as a diocese in a year or two,” one priest told The Pillar. “Rome has failed us.”
It is not clear that the Vatican is without sympathy for the presbyterate and the Catholics of Knoxville. In the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, another U.S. Vos estis lux mundi investigation took some 19 months to see a bishop accused of misconduct to resign.
It could be that the Knoxville case is simply taking time to document — or that Stika has put up a fight against the prospect of resignation, slowing down a speedy resolution.
And the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, the department charged with overseeing the investigations into Stika, has been in the last year in a protracted process of leadership change, which concluded this month with Archbishop Robert Prevost taking up the dicastery’s helm.
Prevost, an American Augustinian who most recently served as a bishop in Peru, will now be the person most responsible for shepherding Stika’s case forward — and the archbishop reportedly told at least one Catholic in Knoxville this year that he would give the case his attention once he was firmly in office.
In addition to Prevost, American cardinals on the Dicastery for Bishops — Cardinals Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin — could be significant voices in deciding how the troubles in Knoxville should be resolved.
After two years of media coverage — mostly from The Pillar and the Knoxville News-Sentinel — Stika’s case has become for many Catholics a kind of referendum on the integrity of the pope’s reform agenda.
For some observers — and some Catholics in Knoxville — there is little doubt that questions about have Stika’s leadership have mostly ground other diocesan projects to a halt.
One diocesan leader in the city said recently that things have become like a kind of “ecclesiastical Twilight Zone.”
Others tell The Pillar that “the wheels have come off this bus.”
The attention means that whatever the Holy See decides about Stika — even if it will be to exonerate him — there will be a cadre of Catholics wanting to know exactly how the decision was made, and what evidence was given consideration.
After Vatican pledges of transparency, episcopal accountability, and significant reform, the Stika case has become something of a litmus test for some Catholics: Either the bishop is guilty of serial misconduct, or the Vatican will need to address the claims to that effect, which come from his own priests.
Of course, that kind of transparency seems unlikely to be the outcome of this case. If Stika leaves office, it will probably be under the guise of a resignation. And if he stays, it’s improbable that any official will offer any commentary on the dysfunction in the diocese.
But no matter the outcome, the case is unlikely to fade into obscurity. And as long as it remains unresolved, it will prompt questions — or cynicism — about the pledges to reform and promises to protect.
In fact, the case is being watched closely by priests in other parts of the country, who wonder how — or whether — concerns about their own bishops would be treated at the Vatican, especially after a Catholic University study last year showed that a high percentage of American priests say they don’t trust their bishops will help them address issues in their lives.
As one Knoxville priest told The Pillar: “Trust is built on mutual accountability. And here the Vatican won’t give us any accountability at all. So then we can’t trust. Well, that means we’re supposed to be obedient to these men we can’t trust, and that just can’t possibly work.”
“It’s like, we’re supposed to obey these men for the sake our salvation, but we can’t trust the Church is going to actually hold them accountable. That leaves us set up for an abusive relationship.”
As Prevost takes up his job, it is worth asking whether the Holy See knows just how keenly lay and clerical Catholics — in Tennessee and further afield — are waiting to see whether the prefect can find the little gold ring that rolled under the chair.
To the priests of Knoxville, that would be a real miracle.