When Bishop Rick Stika resigned from the Diocese of Knoxville in June, he said in a statement that he hoped to find “relief” from the responsibilities he experienced as a diocesan bishop.
But while Stika may now have found “relief,” many Catholics in the Knoxville diocese — including many of its priests — are still processing the circumstances of Stika’s departure, and the multiple allegations of misconduct filed against him.
The diocese is now waiting for the appointment of a new bishop. But shortly after Stika resigned, The Pillar talked with Fr. Brent Shelton, a senior Knoxville priest who took a leave of absence from active ministry this spring, after alleging that Stika had become retributive toward him and toward several other priests, whom the bishop reportedly blamed for the allegations against him.
Shelton reflected on what the situation in the Diocese of Knoxville can teach the Church about her efforts toward reform, accountability, and transparency.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Father Shelton, tell me about your experiences in the Diocese of Knoxville. What were the challenges you faced?
I was ordained by Archbishop Kurtz — Bishop Kurtz at the time — in 2001. Things went very well under him, as far as I was aware.
After Bishop Stika came, there were concerns right away, and there was a lot of discussion among the priests about what was going on.
We couldn't quite understand what was happening, because some of his behavior was just unusual. He’d be 30 minutes late for confirmation Masses; he’d be very critical.
There was a fraternal group [of priests] I was a member of, which Bishop Kurtz had been very much in favor of. I think we would just meet once a week for lunch and discuss a book we were reading or some such thing. Well, the members were called by [Stika] and asked what the nature of the group was. He was very suspicious of it.
So the group broke up.
There were a lot of things like that that happened just within that first calendar year he was bishop. And like I said, there was a lot of discussion among us priests, just trying to figure out what was happening.
Why was he treating us that way?
He didn't seem to have any interest in the diocese, but he was very interested in telling us about all of his connections elsewhere. We were very aware that even though we had one of the smallest dioceses in the country, in terms of the number of Catholics, Cardinal Rigali [who lived in retirement with Stika in Knoxville] was a very well connected English-speaking cardinal.
And then — you know, the father of American Catholicism is St. John Neumann, and Bishop Stika told us that he wore his episcopal ring, or one of them at least.
So here’s a man who is the protegé of the most-connected English-speaking cardinal, and he sometimes wears the ring of the father of American Catholicism. He was obviously a very important man, and we thought — why is he treating us this way?
And we also thought — well, there’s nothing we can do about it. The man is just way too important.
So it was a lot of suffering, and several priests left over the years. And there were various ways of coping with Bishop Stika’s leadership, and we were prepared to keep putting up with it, until we found out what was going on with that seminarian.
And so a group of priests decided to make a report to the Vatican.
Soon after that, The Pillar started reporting on this. And those first reports, The Pillar said, were triggered by some source outside the diocese. But we were blamed for The Pillar reporting, even though we were supposed to be protected by Vos estis lux mundi and allowed to talk about our concerns in the diocese.
And I understand that there were priests who felt they were threatened for having spoken with the media.
I remember what I would call thinly veiled threats.
You know, I had other jobs before I was a priest, and — well — there's good bosses and bad bosses. And, you know, you deal with the bad ones, and you're thankful for the good ones. But when you're a priest, you've made a promise of obedience. So your ministry — your life — is built around this promise of obedience.
If a bishop tells you to do something that's clearly against the 10 Commandments, for example, well, you know, you don't have to obey that. But the problem is that when you're seeing red flags, and you're wanting to do something about that — a bishop might well use a promise of obedience to silence you.
For us, that was really very much in the mix these past two years — and for our vocations team, it was even before the past two years. They thought they were seeing serious signs — red flags — but where should they raise them?
The bishop’s behavior — kind of divide and conquer behavior — was always highlighting divides among the priests, even divides that, in our tiny rural diocese, hadn’t really amounted to anything until he came.
It seemed to be an environment being created that was suitable for corruption, whether or not the corruption was taking place. It was certainly not a fraternal environment, an honest, open environment.
And so in that environment, all you have left is the promise of obedience, and there can be a sort of a cult of obedience that exists to a certain extent among priests. What I mean is that, as a priest, you begin to think that even if what you’re being told to do — or not do — something that’s not right, well, you think, I’m going to be obedient, and then God will forgive me. It’s easy for a priest to think — God will not blame me as long as I’m being obedient.
And that can be used — That can become the heart of corruption in a diocese.
Obedience in priestly life is important, and I think you would affirm that. And yet it can be abused. So what can reform look like in the culture of the Church’s life? How can that be addressed?
There was something that we experienced in the Diocese of Knoxville that I think is instructive.
At every ordination we celebrated in the diocese, for priests and for deacons, Bishop Stika had a habit I think is worth learning from. When it came time for the promise of obedience, he had a habit of interrupting the ceremony, every time, to say: “This is my favorite part, the promise of obedience.”
He’d do that every time. He was joking about it, but in a way that made very clear to us that it wasn’t quite a joke. Obedience was critical to him — and he made that clear in a lot of other comments over the years.
Of course, a fatherly bishop wouldn’t say things like that, or interrupt the rite like that.
But it makes an important point. The Church is asking a lot of a young man, to ask him to make a promise of obedience to a man and then to his successors — successors whom he doesn't even know.
So the Church should have a moral obligation to explain clearly what that promise of obedience really means, and what it doesn’t mean.
And then, at the same time, we should make sure priests understand what to do if they think the promise of obedience is being abused.
If we write letters to the nuncio, and he doesn't even have the basic courtesy to acknowledge receiving our letters, who then do we talk to? There’s no one to speak with to deal with these problems.
Before the issue with the seminarian came up, we had been struggling to deal with the bishop — for 14 years altogether. And those of us in the leadership in the diocese had been talking about trying to find some way for some kind of intervention. But we kept running into the same thing — canonically, maybe even theologically, there really is no such thing. There’s very little a presbyterate can do if there are problems. There’s no one who can intervene. The person who can investigate a bishop is the pope, and none of us have the pope’s cell phone number.
So the promise of obedience places a very large burden upon a priest, which is fine. We’re all following Christ on the way of the Cross. But if you’re going to ask that of people, then the Church has a moral obligation to both explain what the promise is about, and to make very clear what the process is for addressing concerns about the potential abuse of that problem.
There’s a small book Pope Francis wrote — some letters of Pope Francis, really — and the book is called “The Way of Humility.”
I’ve been reading it, and it has helped me tremendously. Before he was elected, Pope Francis wrote about how there is a very clear distinction between sin and corruption.
There’s a tendency to say: “Well, we're all sinners, so we just have to forgive everyone no matter what they're doing. Therefore, there's no need to promote reform because instead we're just going to forgive.”
Well, Pope Francis says, no, sinners need forgiveness, but you can't just forgive corruption and move on.
Now, the pope is talking about the civil sphere. But I would think in a diocese, when you're seeing corruption, the misuse of authority, the misuse of sacred things like the promise of obedience, when that's happening, that's corruption. That's not merely someone who's a sinner — it’s something else.
And of course, the nature of corruption is that it pulls other people into it. So this is about more than just a bishop. When a bishop is a narcissist, for example, or when there is failed leadership in a diocese, there becomes a circle of people who take advantage of that for their own purposes.
For that reason, we need to make sure our clergy have a clear understanding of what the difference is between sin and corruption.
If you're a priest, your job is to forgive and to reconcile. We're professional reconcilers. So our tendency, by nature, is to try to find a way to apply mercy to a situation through forgiveness.
But what's often needed instead is to shine the light in the darkness, and to expose the corruption for what it is, so that we can then move forward, as sinners. We can move forward together as sinners — but we can't move forward together as a diocese if we’re corrupt, and it’s not acknowledged.
What is the spiritual effect for a presbyterate experiencing some of the dysfunction you’ve described? What do you observe?
Well, it's tough when your bishop is making public statements that you know are directed towards you, and there's really nothing you can do about it unless you publicly counter him. And then that creates an impossible environment.
When I was a teenager, I reported a predator and I saw how it was covered up. Leaders would tell me that I needed healing, or I needed to forgive, or I needed to go to a counselor.
Well, here’s the thing: I wasn't going to them looking for healing. I was going to them to say: “Here's a problem that needs to be dealt with.”
And they weren't interested in dealing with it. So I had that background — I had the experience of coming forward, with a problem, and wanting to see it resolved.
The great disappointment in the situation in Knoxville, this present situation, is that we can’t look back at all that’s happened and say that we saw red flags, we reported them, and the hierarchy responded appropriately — that things were dealt with in an appropriate manner.
I can’t now stand in front of a congregation and say that you can trust the Church’s leadership, that if there’s a problem, it will be dealt with, and investigated properly, and that there will be a just resolution.
I can’t say that because, sadly, that’s not how things unfolded. There were the issues with the bishop, and then priests and others who protected the bishop, by making it harder to raise concerns — who got sucked into a poisonous culture.
I would say, though, that priestly fraternity in the Diocese of Knoxville is stronger than it’s ever been as a result of all this. Even priests that aren’t at all alike, liturgically or whatever, even priests that — and I joke — even priests that don’t share Catholicism in common, have been united in this situation. So there has been strong fraternity.
And I can also tell you that a shining light in all this was Archbishop [Shelton] Fabre, because he came down with the priests and sat down and just listened, which is something we had never experienced, with our recently resigned bishop.
What does the Diocese of Knoxville need in its next bishop?
So the first thing is for a bishop, I think, to listen to what the priests have to say, and for the same thing to be done by the chancery. And here in Knoxville, a new bishop is going to need to travel the diocese — maybe not so much for confirmations at first, but just to travel the diocese, and meet with the faithful, and listen to them because the Catholics of East Tennessee are very good Catholics.
The people are very good, and the priests are good. And so a bishop will need to come in and listen to what they have to say, and work with them to move forward.
He could make some promises. He could say: “Look, we're gonna have a diocesan pastoral council, and I'm going to listen to what they have to say— they're gonna meet regularly and I'm gonna listen to them.”
The presbyteral council — instead of the bishop and the chancery staff taking turns talking at the members of the council, he could say: “The presbyteral council is going to advise me.”
I was at a presbyteral council meeting myself that went on for five hours, and we didn't give a single bit of advice to the bishop. It was nothing but people coming in and talking at us.
So a bishop could say: “From now on, when I make decisions, I'm going to utilize the proper consultative bodies. I'm going to listen very carefully to them before I make decisions, rather than making the decision and then getting these bodies to rubber stamp them, in some cases via email.”
If the bishop cares about people — and there are bishops who are like that — even if he has no leadership ability, if he genuinely cares about the priests and the people, the priests and the people will pick up on that, and they'll make it work.
The truth is that a diocese can thrive with a bishop who has very poor management skills if he genuinely cares about the priests and the people. So even if a bishop like that comes in, he’ll be fine if he will listen to everyone first, and make full use of the canonical consultative bodies that are available to him. If he does those things, he’ll be fine.
Like I say, the priest and the people are good, and God works well with people who have good intentions. In fact, I think things would be fine fairly quickly in Knoxville if a decent bishop was brought in.
I always say that a bad leader does the wrong thing, even if the policies and procedures are good, and a good leader does the right thing, even if policy and procedures are bad.
So what we need aren’t better policies and procedures. We need better leaders.
All that Knoxville needs is a good person — a leader who's a good man, and then everything else will fall into place because the people and the priests will work well with him.
It’s true that something has to be done about the bitterness that the priests, in particular, have towards some of the, some of the leading priests and some of those chancery staff, because a lot of the priests feel betrayed by them.
But that should be something that can be fairly easily resolved.
We are in a ‘synodal moment’ in the Church’s life. What would you tell Pope Francis about the things he can learn from Knoxville, as he gives direction to bishops around the world?
Well, the Holy Father should first of all tell his nuncios that when they get letters from priests in leadership positions in a diocese in distress, he needs to respond to them.
He doesn't have to give them the answers, but he needs to respond. That's the first thing, that we can write letters to the nuncio and, and not even know whether the nuncio got it — that's just unacceptable.
As far as bishops in general, like newly appointed bishops, well, I would say: Don't make it about you.
The diocese isn't a trophy for a priest who's climbed a ladder. A diocese is a community of the faithful, and a bishop is supposed to be the servant of that diocese.
A bishop should go into the diocese ready to learn what’s already in the diocese — and to learn about the people. A bishop needs to go in and become a student, learn the priests, learn the parishes. The more they can learn, the better leaders they can be.
Father, as you look over your own experience in recent years, what advice would you give to priests in a diocese with dysfunction, or abuses of trust or office?
After Vos estis lux mundi came out, I’d hoped I could tell them that there’s a process in place that works well — but I can’t tell them that.
What I would say is that if they see criminal behavior, they should report it to the police.
But if they're seeing red flags that need to be investigated, they need to get all the documents they can, and document everything they're seeing themselves, and they've got to get all of that to a reputable Catholic journalist.
Because of my own personal background, I've been looking for change for over 30 years, and I haven't yet seen it.
When there's bad PR, the bishops will do and say the right thing until the news cycle dies down. But I haven't seen real reform, or real understanding of what the problem is. So I would tell them to document everything, make copies of official documents, and when you try to report anything to the Vatican or to the nuncio or whatever, you've got to get everything you have to a reputable Catholic journalist.
That’s what I would advise a priest in a diocese, whether they’re at the vocations office, or the chancery, or whatever. If you’re going to send things to the Vatican or to the metropolitan or whatever, get it in the hands of someone else first.
Father, you’re a Christian, and part of our Christian identity is the mandate of forgiveness.
I suspect you have to work through forgiving a bishop you believe mistreated you, and forgiving, in a certain way, the institution of the Church itself. What does that process look like for you? It can’t be easy.
Well, I’ll say it again. This book, “The Way of Humility” has been very helpful to me. Pope Francis says very clearly that you have to forgive sinners, but you don’t just forgive away corruption.
I see this as more than a dysfunctional leadership environment that we had in the Diocese of Knoxville. It was corruption, and corruption has to be exposed and fought, not forgiven. I think that distinction is very clear, and frankly, I’m not aware that Bishop Stika made any effort to apologize for anything he actually did wrong. He made very vague statements, followed by assertions that he did nothing wrong. And if you won’t acknowledge that you’ve done anything wrong, then an apology doesn’t make any sense. What are we forgiving?
People are happy that we have a chance to move forward, and maybe a year from now, there will be a good leader in place. And east Tennessee will be again going in the right direction.
It’s difficult when the founding bishop, Bishop O'Connell, died in disgrace. So two-thirds of the Bishops of Knoxville have been major problems. So that makes it tough.
For me personally, it’s this book, “The Way of Humility,” which has helped me get through this.