Knoxville bishop replaced investigator in seminarian probe

News: Diocese of Knoxville

Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, sidelined an investigator appointed to scrutinize allegations of sexual assault and misconduct committed by a diocesan seminarian. The bishop told The Pillar he intervened because he did not believe the investigator appointed by a diocesan review board was competent for the task, and that he is convinced of the seminarian’s innocence.

“I have been fighting in the diocese rumors about [the seminarian]...I’ve been constantly fighting these battles because I know he is innocent,” Stika said of the seminarian. “And if there’s anything, maybe I’m like a dog with a bone. I really believe somebody has to stand up for people when you think they’re innocent.” 

The bishop’s admission came weeks after he was accused of impeding an investigation into serial sexual misconduct by the seminarian, a charge at the center of several reports submitted to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops by Knoxville priests and lay Catholics

The Vatican has not yet announced a formal investigation into those reports. But Stika said he believes any thorough review of the matter will exonerate him, adding that he has “nothing to hide.” 

In a May 10 interview, Stika also told The Pillar that he continued to classify the student as a diocesan seminarian after he was dismissed from seminary studies, because changing that classification could have negatively affected the seminarian’s immigration status.

The bishop also addressed allegations that he threatened a Knoxville priest with canonical penalties amid disagreement over the seminarian. The bishop said he dangled the prospect of penalties in part because the priest “spread rumors” about the seminarian among the diocesan presbyterate, but that other factors had also contributed to the decision.

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The seminarian came to the United States while a student member of a religious community. When he left the community, Stika accepted him in 2019 for formation as a diocesan seminarian. Stika told The Pillar he accepted the seminarian after a strong recommendation from a prominent cardinal in the seminarian’s home country. 

But while the seminarian was living with Stika in 2019, still being evaluated for formal acceptance in the diocese, he was accused of sexually assaulting an employee at the diocesan cathedral, a charge he denied. Stika told The Pillar he investigated the matter personally, and, satisfied that the allegation was untrue, sent the seminarian for studies at a seminary outside the diocese.

While in seminary, the seminarian was accused of sexual misconduct at least three times, in incidents which Stika called “boundary issues.” Sources close to the seminary said the incidents consisted of sexual harassment or assault of other seminarians.

The seminarian was dismissed from his seminary in February 2021.

After the seminarian was dismissed from studies, Stika told priests he had been appointed to assist the bishop with chancery duties during a “discernment period.” The bishop told The Pillar April 22 he remained formally a seminarian of the diocese.

The seminarian initially lived in Stika’s house after he was dismissed, but subsequently moved in with a chancery employee.

After the February dismissal, priests in the diocese raised concerns about the 2019 allegations to the diocesan review board. The board appointed George Prosser, a retired law enforcement investigator, to look into the allegations against the seminarian. Prosser, who had been inspector general of the Tennessee Valley Authority, was recommended by a diocesan attorney, and had conducted several prior investigations for the diocese.

“Well, the next day George shows up at the chancery, he starts asking all these questions about [the seminarian] to people who had no idea who he was and what he was doing. And then George pointed in front of two other women, to a woman who is one of our staff. And he said, ‘I understand that [the seminarian] is living with you.’ She had no idea what he was talking about.” 

“And then he calls up the rector of the seminary. Wants to interview the rector and the seminarians. The rector had no idea who he was, what he was doing,” Stika told The Pillar. 

Stika claimed that Prosser’s efforts to conduct interviews were causing confusion, and that he had doubts about Prosser’s competence.

“He’s a friend of our attorney. He is 75 years old, not a Catholic. Past his prime.”

Several sources close to the Knoxville review board say that Stika complained about Prosser’s investigative techniques; one source said the bishop seemed to be upset that Prosser was “asking too many questions.”

Stika confirmed his displeasure.

“I explained to the board that he was asking questions and, and he got things more confusing with the seminary,” the bishop said.

Stika told the review board he would replace Prosser with Chris Manning, a retired police officer and a member of the review board.

“So I then said to Chris, ‘Will you do it?’ And there were no hindrances or limitations [placed upon the investigation].” 

“I said, ‘Go for it.’ You know? And then that was it,” Stika explained.

Manning told The Pillar in April that his investigation consisted only of interviewing the accused seminarian, because he was told by other members of the review board that neither the alleged 2019 victim nor the seminarians were willing to be interviewed. He conceded that he had not made efforts to contact them personally.

But The Pillar confirmed that at least one of the alleged targets of harassment at the seminary has not been asked whether he is willing to speak with the Knoxville diocese or its review board. 

Stika said he has not yet received a final report from Manning. 

“I haven’t been talking to Chris too much about that, especially. I think we’re supposed to have lunch one day, and, because I baptized his daughter…”

Prosser told The Pillar he could not respond to questions about investigations, citing his obligation to professional confidentiality.

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Stika told The Pillar that while Manning’s investigation is not concluded, the seminarian is no longer considered a seminarian for the diocese.   

“The only reason I considered him a seminarian [after dismissal] was until he got his immigration papers,” Stika said. 

“So now he’s been accepted by another school... and now that he’s got all his immigration [sorted out], he’s no longer considered a seminarian.”

“It doesn't mean he's not my friend,” the bishop added.

The seminarian is eligible to reapply to the diocese in two years, Stika said.

The bishop said he believes the issue has been mischaracterized by priests in the diocese. He speculated to The Pillar about several priests he believed had been at the center of “spreading rumors” about the seminarian, and said that in some cases, they held a personal bias against him. 

One priest in the diocese was threatened last month with canonical penalties after he raised concerns about the 2019 allegation against the seminarian, several diocesan priests told The Pillar.

When asked, the bishop did not deny he had threatened canonical penalties, but said it was because of a combination of factors, and not only because the priest had raised concerns about the seminarian.

“That was a two-parter,” Stika said.

The bishop said the priest had faced personal difficulties, which he delineated to The Pillar, and had been expected to undergo therapy. Stika said the priest had not done so, and that he had threatened canonical penalties because of that, in addition to his belief that the priest had spread “rumors” about the seminarian and then lied about that to the bishop.

“I was just trying to get some reaction from him. And he lied to my face three times and, and he's lied to me in the past, but I don't think it was intentional. So, you know, so it was kind of the combination of one and two,” the bishop said.

“And then after I felt bad, and so I actually called him and I apologized. And I said ‘Let’s start a relationship.’ So I took him out for lunch today,” the bishop added.

The priest in question declined to speak to The Pillar.

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The bishop told The Pillar that he believed priests had “burned” the seminarian by raising concerns about him, and that he was unsure why anyone had raised the issue to the Vatican, rather than go to him personally. 

He added that he no longer plans to attend review board meetings.

“Because I think they have more freedom to talk about things. Stuff was leaked from the review board that was kind of in the middle of the conversation, and not the conclusion of the conversation.” 

“The one thing I've learned from this is people can easily misconstrue things that I say. I talk this way. So if you listen to me [as I process an issue], it might not be at the conclusion. I talk out loud and I do that at the meetings.”

“I am what I am. And it really does hurt me when priests would misconstrue things.”

The bishop said he is more concerned about the seminarian than about himself.

“If I thought there was a smidgen of guilt, I would not have backed him, because why would I invite this?” Stika asked.

“I think he’s innocent. And he has suffered greatly.”


More about unfolding allegations in the Diocese of Knoxville

Stika accepted deacon accused of misconduct; Knoxville priests criticize 'pattern' of leadership, April 29

Stika facing likely Vos estis investigation, April 23