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Knoxville diocese fought to name plaintiff in rape cover-up suit

A Tennessee judge struck down Friday the Diocese of Knoxville’s plea to dismiss a lawsuit which alleges that Knoxville’s bishop impeded a diocesan investigation into a rape allegation, and defamed an alleged rape victim, by charging publicly that the victim was actually the aggressor. 

Bishop Richard Stika. Credit: JWoganDOK/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

Judge Jerome Melson also dismissed a petition from the Knoxville diocese for a protective order, which would have exempted from subpoena all diocesan records related to a Vatican investigation into complaints against Bishop Rick Stika.

The court also decided Friday that the alleged rape victim will not be permitted to use a pseudonym in his suit against Stika and the Knoxville diocese

Although the identity of the plaintiff has been known to the diocese since before the suit was filed, diocesan attorneys argued in a brief ahead of the July 29 hearing that the alleged rape victim should be required to disclose his name publicly in the lawsuit. The court agreed.

An attorney for the plaintiff told The Pillar that the ruling won’t derail the lawsuit, even while his client fears retaliation if his name is publicly disclosed.

“We are grateful for the court’s ruling denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss and motion for protective order,” Patrick Thronson, attorney for the lawsuit’s plaintiff, told The Pillar Monday.

“We respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling denying plaintiffs’ motion to proceed under a pseudonym—a motion that, to our surprise, the diocese and Bishop Stika opposed.”

“In spite of the plaintiff’s well-founded fears of harassment and retaliation if his name is disclosed in connection with the lawsuit, he is nonetheless determined to move forward with the case to seek justice, and to hold the defendants accountable,” Thronson added.

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The lawsuit against the diocese and its bishop was filed in February in Knox County, Tennessee. The plaintiff filed the suit under a pseudonym, John Doe, “due to the highly private and emotionally difficult nature of the allegations and the prospect of publicity that may intrude into deeply personal matters.”

The suit charges that the plaintiff - a former parish organist in the Knoxville diocese - was in 2019 raped and sexually harassed by Wojciech Sobczuk, a diocesan employee and seminarian, and alleges that a diocesan investigation into that allegation was impeded by the bishop.

According to the lawsuit, Stika and the Knoxville diocese concealed and covered-up “Sobczuk’s abuse [and] sexual misconduct,” transferred “Sobczuk to new postings to prevent further complaints,” failed to report allegations against Sobczuk to police, and failed to provide pastoral care to Sobczuk’s victims.

The suit also charges that Stika defamed the alleged victim by telling priests of the diocese, and The Pillar in 2021, that Sobczuk had been sexually assaulted by the suit’s plaintiff, rather than the other way around.

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When he filed a lawsuit in February, the plaintiff asked the court to allow him use of a pseudonym, because he “reasonably fears for his safety and fears further injury to his reputation if his identity is publicized.”

“Although judicial proceedings are open to the public and the public has an interest in disclosure of court records, there are circumstances that warrant a Plaintiff’s anonymity, including those in this matter, where the subject matter of the claim is of the utmost intimacy and where a plaintiff has fear and concern for potential retaliation and embarrassment,” the alleged victim’s lawyer wrote in a motion.

“The Plaintiff in this matter was sexually abused by Sobczuk during the period of time that Sobczuk was serving as an employee of the Catholic Diocese ofKnoxville as an assistant to defendant Richard Stika, who serves as Bishop of the Diocese. Sexual abuse, of course, is a highly sensitive matter. Survivors do not only suffer embarrassment and shame as a result of the abuse, but have also historically been subjected to social ridicule and stigma.”

“As a result of [Sobczuk]’s sexual abuse, Plaintiff struggles with PTSD, depression, and severe anxiety, and has trouble trusting others. Plaintiff feels that filing under his real name will further exacerbate these mental health concerns and will potentially subject him to ridicule and contempt from others despite the fact that the abuse that he endured was in no way his fault,” the brief added.

The Knoxville diocese opposed that request.

Attorneys for the diocese told the court in a July 25 brief that the plaintiff should be required to put his name on his lawsuit, because there was no need for anonymity that “substantially outweighs the presumption that parties' identities are public information, and the risk of unfairness to the opposing party.”

The diocese argued that the plaintiff was making conflicting claims — asking for his name to be protected in court, even while claiming that Stika had already harmed his good name: 

“In doing so, Plaintiff ignores the fact that his defamation claims rest upon allegations in his complaint that these matters have already been made public by alleged online news sources and that Bishop Stika’s alleged comments in response to these reports reflecting his opinion and belief that the accusations made against the seminarian were ‘baseless’ and ‘untrue’ and that the seminarian was ‘innocent’ are actionable and Plaintiff has already been exposed to ‘wrath, public hatred, contempt, and ridicule.’ Plaintiff cannot have it in both ways.”

Judge Melson agreed on Friday with diocesan arguments; the plaintiff will be required to amend his lawsuit to include his name.

Thronson told The Pillar that use of a pseudonym is not uncommon in litigation touching on sexual assault. He said while Friday’s decision was the court’s prerogative, dioceses do not often oppose the use of pseudonyms in assault-related litigation.

“That was pretty surprising,” Thronson told The Pillar.

The lawyer suggested that diocesan push to see the alleged victim’s name made public seemed incongruous with Knoxville’s 2020 diocesan policy regarding sexual misconduct cases, which requires that in diocesan processes, “the privacy of a victim shall be honored,” and that “the right of a victim to maximum privacy should be guarded.” 

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Judge Melson on Friday also ruled against a petition from the Knoxville diocese for a protective order, which would have kept documents related to a Vatican-ordered investigation into Stika’s leadership out of the lawsuit.

The diocese argued those documents are protected by the clergy-penitent confidentiality privilege recognized in Tennessee law.

Stika and the Knoxville diocese argued in a brief that any documents related to an investigation made under the aegis of Pope Francis’ 2019 Vos estis lux mundi protocols are “protected internal church matters and documents.”

“Such matters, including their existence or non-existence, are protected under both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the clergy-penitent privilege codified in” Tennessee law, the Knoxville diocese claimed in a July 22 brief.

In a response memo, Thronson argued for the plaintiff that the priest-penitent privilege “protects parishioners who approach clergy in confidence,” but does not pertain to administrative processes in the Church, among them Vos estis investigations.

“A telephone call to a priest to obtain spiritual guidance would be protected by the privilege, but an interoffice memorandum on scheduling confessions would not be. And an interoffice memorandum regarding a sexual abuse allegation would certainly not be included,” the brief added.

Thronson also pushed back against broader religious liberty arguments.

“The First Amendment protects neither sexual assault nor negligent conduct that was a cause of sexual assault. As shown below, the First Amendment protects speech, belief, and other forms of expression, but it does not protect those who commit or enable others to commit sexual assault,” the lawyer argued.

At the court hearing last week, Stika’s attorney again argued that asking about a Vos estis investigation is “similar to asking a priest whether or not someone has come for confession.”

Stika’s attorney added that a Vos estis investigation is “not an administrative matter.· It's an ecclesiastical matter as set forth in the papal decree.”

But the plaintiff’s lawyer cited a July 2019 Vatican rescript, which clarified specifically that “the pontifical secret does not apply” to Vos estis investigations, and instructed that confidentiality in Vos estis investigations “shall not prevent the fulfillment of the obligations laid down in all places by civil laws, including any reporting obligations, and the execution of enforceable requests of civil judicial authorities.”

Melson agreed. He told the court that “based upon the apostolic letter presented,” he would “respectfully deny” the diocesan plea.

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After the hearing, Thronson told The Pillar that his client will amend his lawsuit to include his name, as required by the court, and move forward with litigation. 

The diocese has previously told The Pillar it will not answer questions about the litigation, but said in a February statement it would “vigorously challenge the lawsuit.”

The lawsuit comes amid a difficult period for the Knoxville diocese.

In April 2021, The Pillar reported that several priests of the diocese had made complaints to the Vatican about Stika’s leadership, charging that he had had removed an investigator from a diocesan review board investigation into the sexual assault allegation against Sobczuk.

The next month, Stika told The Pillar that he had replaced the investigator, because “I know he is innocent,” Stika said of Sobczuk, a Polish national who came to the diocese in 2018.

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 and the cathedral’s rector investigated the matter personally, and, satisfied that the allegation was untrue, Stika sent Sobczuk for studies at a seminary outside the diocese.

While in seminary, the seminarian was accused of aggessive and graphic sexual advances toward other seminarians, in incidents which Stika called “boundary issues.” 

Sobczuk 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.

When the diocesan review board attempted to investigate the 2019 assault allegation in 2021, Stika dismissed a retired law enforcement investigator whom Stika claimed was causing confusion by “asking all these questions” of diocesan administrators and seminary personnel.

“I make no apologies, because [Sobczuk] was a victim,” he told The Pillar, explaining that he believed the parish organist had been sexually aggessive toward Sobczuk,

The Pillar reported in April 2022 that Stika has given Sobczuk thousands of dollars from diocesan accounts as gifts, as well as providing him large monthly stipends, buying him a $2,000 laptop, taking him on a trip to the Vatican, and reimbursing Sobczuk nearly $30,000 during that for travel, car repair, “birthday expenses,” and other expenditures.

Even after Sobczuk was dismissed from seminary studies, Stika took him on a 2021 vacation, and priests in the diocese allege that Stika has also provided Sobczuk with cars and other resources. 

In March, a Tennessee woman accused Stika of lashing out at her when she reported that a priest had developed an inappropriate relationship with a minor.

In April, Stika faced a new lawsuit, alleging that the bishop did not act to discipline or remove a priest for nearly two years after the priest was accused of sexually assaulting a grieving parishioner.

While Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was delegated by the Holy See to look into Stika’s leadership in 2021, there has been no Vatican response to Stika’s interference with assault investigations, or to the gifts he made to Sobczuk from diocesan funds. 

Priests in the diocese say they wonder whether retired Cardinal Justin Rigali, who lives in Stika’s house in Knoxville, has made interventions in Rome to thwart Vatican action on the issue.

But others point out that Rigali, 87, has limited influence in Rome — asking whether Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States has weighed in on Stika’s behalf amid Vatican deliberations.

Because Vos estis investigations are overseen by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, some Knoxville priests have asked whether the Americans on the dicastery - Cardinals Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin - have been involved in decisions about Stika’s leadership.

The apostolic nuncio has not responded to questions from The Pillar about the Vatican investigation.

Nor has the nuncio responded to questions raised by Knoxville priests.

The Pillar reported in May that 11 Knoxville priests wrote to Pierre in 2021 asking for “merciful relief” from Stika’s leadership, which they called “detrimental to priestly fraternity and even to our personal well-being.” 

“While we acknowledge the reality of suffering that comes with bearing our daily crosses, our appointed bishop seems determined to increase that suffering for his own purposes, purposes which seem unrelated to the demands of the Gospel,” the priests wrote.

To date, the priests have received no response.

For his part, Stika has told priests in the Knoxville diocese that Pierre has assured him he has “nothing to worry about” with regard to the Vatican’s investigation, according to several sources in the Knoxville diocese. Pierre has not responded to The Pillar’s questions about that claim.

Stika has often criticized media attention given to the affair. 

“I got enough facts to back me up,” he told The Pillar last year. “If you run a story questioning my integrity, it ain’t gonna work.”

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