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Knoxville priests asked nuncio for 'merciful relief'

Priests of the Knoxville diocese asked a papal representative last year for “merciful relief” from the leadership of Bishop Rick Stika. More than six months later, they have received no response to their request, and there has not been any conclusion to a Vatican investigation into Stika’s leadership.

Bishop Richard Stika offers Holy Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Knoxville, Tennessee. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

“Our experience of our appointed bishop varies among us, but the undersigned do share a common awareness that the past twelve years of service under Bishop Stika have been, on the whole, 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,” wrote 11 Knoxville priests in a Sept. 29 letter to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States. 


The priests’ letter came as Stika faced a Vatican investigation into charges he mishandled an allegation that a seminarian sexually assaulted a parish organist in 2019.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops received “about 10” accusations against Stika in April 2021, and subsequently assigned Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville to review the matter.  

Stika admitted to The Pillar last May that he replaced an investigator during a diocesan review board investigation into an allegation of sexual assault against the seminarian, Wojciech Sobczuk. 

Stika also told The Pillar that three subsequent allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Sobczuk were “baseless” and “boundary violations,” and the bishop did not permit an investigation into the claims.

Diocesan financial records show that the bishop gave thousands in cash to Sobczuk from diocesan accounts,  and purchased for him expensive electronics and travel.

Stika has denied wrongdoing.

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But when 11 Knoxville priests wrote to the apostolic nuncio in September, they said the charges against Stika were part of a larger pattern of problematic leadership. Their letter asked the nuncio for advice.

“Following the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas on the correction of a prelate by inferiors…we believe we have already exhausted all possibility of direct appeals, in public and in private, to Bishop Stika himself…We are well aware that appeal by clerics to the apostolic nuncio is a most unusual course of action, but we assure Your Excellency that we do so only from a place of grave concern, and after twelve years of discernment,” the priests wrote.

The letter alleged that Stika has intimidated priests he suspected of speaking publicly or with the media about allegations of misconduct, in possible violation of norms issued by Pope Francis. It also charged that Stika had been demonstrably dishonest about a vacation he took with Sobczuk, that he frequently made lewd and unseemly jokes, even in mixed company, and that Stika had said frequently that he would not face consequences after the Vatican investigation into his handling of assault allegations.

“These are the concerning incidents of only the past few months. Taken in isolation, they are easily dismissed… But as indicators of what we’ve endured for twelve years under Bishop Stika’s leadership, they weigh heavily upon us,” the priests wrote. 

“What we have not attempted to relay to you here by way of example is the lack of sympathy the bishop demonstrates for his priests facing personal trials, or the lack of charity he displays for such priests when he speaks about us to others, even publicly.  While this disregard for his priests is the most difficult feature for us to explain to you, it is nevertheless the feature that saddens us the most, and which is only compounded by the other incidents listed above.”

“It seems to us that ours is a depressed presbyterate, and has been developing as such for twelve years, due to the leadership of Bishop Stika,” the priests wrote.

“When the priests of a diocese reach the low point of having lost trust in the diocesan bishop, how do we make recourse against the bishop, when the bishop publicly and persistently reprimands his priests for exposing perceived wrongdoing that he appears to be obstinately against investigating?”

“As Bishop Stika reminds us—literally ex cathedra—at every ordination, he is especially fond of the power he has over us through the promise of obedience…It seems to us that, over the past twelve years, the power has been pronounced, but the solicitude lacking, and rare exercises of the latter even seem to get subsumed into depressing displays of the former. Is it possible that a bishop might emphasize obedience to such an extent that it becomes a form of abuse, or at least a matter of concern for Your Excellency?”

“Do our concerns, if genuine, rise to a level of concern for Your Excellency?” the letter’s signatories asked Pierre.

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The letter was signed by 11 Knoxville priests, slightly less than 20% of Knoxville’s presbyterate. Several sources close to the diocese say it expresses views held by a greater share of Knoxville’s priests, but Stika has told The Pillar that only a few priests have raised complaints against him, mostly due to personal animus or bias. 

Multiple sources have told The Pillar that the priests have not received a response to their letter.

After scandal erupted in the Catholic Church over allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Pierre told Catholics that “all of us bishops, priests and members of the church must find a real response to the problem. Just a juridical or organizational response will not be enough to avoid evil.”

“Pope Francis calls us to move from a pastoral plan of self-preservation to one of intense missionary activity, capable of meeting the deepest needs of the human heart,” the papal nuncio added.

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In addition to a Vatican investigation, Bishop Stika is facing litigation over his leadership in the diocese.

One lawsuit filed in February charged that Stika did not look into the 2019 assault allegation against Sobczuk, and that the bishop instead tried to cover up the accusation before enrolling Sobczuk at St. Meinrad’s Seminary for the 2019 fall term. The suit also claims that Stika defamed the assault victim by claiming that he, not Sobczuk, was the assailant. 

Another lawsuit charges 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.

In unrelated case, a Tennessee woman told The Pillar in March that Stika bullied her when she reported a priest’s grooming behavior to the Knoxville diocese in 2017.

While the woman said the diocese should have taken seriously charges that a priest was inappropriately engaging with minors, she says Stika told her she had “ruined a priest’s life.”

The Vatican has not yet announced a resolution to its investigation into Stika’s leadership. 


The letter said its signers “absolutely and unconditionally accept and affirm that it is exclusively for the Holy See to appoint, and, when necessary, investigate and formally correct a bishop, and that it is entirely unacceptable for clerics to in any way attempt to assume any such right or duty for ourselves.” 

“It is precisely in a spirit of total dependence upon the pastoral leadership of the Apostolic See that we make this appeal for merciful relief—in whatever form is judged possible and appropriate—from the sufferings we’ve endured these past twelve years. We have no recourse other than the Holy See.”

Still, the priests wrote that they wanted to ensure they had done all they could for the good of their diocese.

“The faithful, once they become aware of any persistently problematic tendencies of a bishop which compromise the mission of the local Church, will perhaps understandably question whether the bishop’s presbyters did enough to warn the appropriate superiors of such tendencies. We do not wish, in hindsight, to be accused of remaining silent, or of not having done enough in the interests of justice and charity.”  

“Have we, the undersigned, done everything the faithful might expect us to do in the case of Bishop Stika?” the priests asked.

The apostolic nunciature has not yet responded to a request for comment on the priests’ letter. 

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