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

News: Vos Estis Lux Mundi

The Bishop of Knoxville accepted a transitional deacon for parish ministry, even after the deacon was dismissed from seminary because of sexual misconduct allegations. Bishop Richard Stika reportedly intended to ordain the deacon a priest, despite objections from both Knoxville’s diocesan priests and psychological experts. 

Priests in the diocese say the circumstance is part of a pattern of questionable relationships and troubling judgment on the bishop’s part, which have been noted in complaints about Stika sent recently to the Vatican. Those reports are expected to trigger an investigation into the bishop’s leadership of his Tennessee diocese

The transitional deacon, incardinated in another U.S. diocese, was dismissed from seminary after “making sexual advances toward a younger seminarian” in late 2016, according to diocesan records obtained by The Pillar.

The deacon was reportedly accused of other incidents of sexual misconduct while in seminary. A 2017 psychologists’ report said the deacon’s “manipulative style, sexual predatory nature and lack of empathy continue to be a grave concern for us given his impending ordination.”  

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After the deacon was dismissed from seminary, Stika agreed in 2017 to assign him to a year of parish ministry in the Knoxville diocese, and to reevaluate the man’s suitability for both ordination to priesthood and possible incardination in the diocese, according to diocesan records.

Multiple sources in the Diocese of Knoxville told The Pillar that Stika did eventually seek to ordain the deacon a priest of Knoxville, despite objections from senior diocesan officials and additional psychological experts.

One Knoxville priest told The Pillar he appreciated, and even regarded as “noble,” Stika’s willingness to order new evaluations for the deacon and investigate the claims against him.

“However, one could fault him for when the evaluations came back: he was willing to go further than the diocese and leadership of Knoxville wanted to go. And this is where the judgment was flawed,” the priest said.  

“When the results came back and were evaluated by the personnel of the Diocese of Knoxville — the vocations director and the leadership of the Diocese of Knoxville — they 100% said he should not be admitted [as a candidate for] our diocese under any circumstances. And the bishop pushed back. He wanted to give him more chances and he kept raising objections. And that was the first time my eyes were raised.”

“Why was he so strongly in favor of this man?”

Several Knoxville priests told The Pillar that Stika’s apparent intention to ordain the aspiring priest is part of a pattern of questionable judgment, failure to listen to advice from both priests and experts, and, in some cases, failure to appreciate the significance of allegations of sexual misconduct. 

“And that’s a pattern,” one priest said.

The deacon was not ordained a priest in the Knoxville diocese because his own bishop declined to excardinate him, priests told The Pillar. Diocesan records show the deacon’s home bishop concluded that “psychologically, he is unsuitable for clerical ministry in the Church.” 

Through a spokesman, Stika said that in 2017 he said he considered the deacon for ministry in the Knoxville diocese, but the deacon was not ultimately accepted. He declined further questions on the deacon or his relationship to the diocese.

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Stika has been more recently criticized for permitting a Knoxville seminarian to live in the bishop’s residence, work as his personal assistant with an office in the diocesan chancery, and remain formally a diocesan seminarian, even after the man was dismissed in February from a seminary outside the diocese, for multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, and was accused in 2019 of sexually assaulting a parish employee. 

Several priests have accused Stika of impeding investigations into that seminarian’s conduct, a charge which Stika denies. 

Chris Manning, a member of the Knoxville diocesan review board who recently investigated allegations against the seminarian, told The Pillar that his investigation did not include interviews with anyone but the accused seminarian, but said that was not Stika’s decision.

Manning conceded that “the optics are bad on this,” even while he defended the bishop.

But priests and laity in the Knoxville diocese say Stika has a history of relationships that appear to be inappropriate, and that appear to impact his judgment. 

Both lay and clerical sources mentioned the recent issues with the diocesan seminarian, the 2017 issues with the deacon, and mentioned a former lay employee of the diocese with whom Stika seemed to be “infatuated,” one priest told The Pillar.

Lay and clerical sources say the bishop appeared to favor the employee and was seen frequently socializing with him. The bishop’s behavior raised “red flags,” one priest told The Pillar.

Several sources in the diocese said diocesan leaders expressed to Stika their concern that relationships with young people, especially seminarians and other young men, involving excessive gifts, overseas trips, and the appearance of favoritism could become a problem for the bishop, and for the diocese. But the bishop has not heeded that advice, they said.

Stika did not respond to questions about that employee. A diocesan spokesman said that “he travelled to Rome with a group that included Bishop Stika and other employees of the diocese” during 2015, and that the bishop celebrated the employee’s wedding and considers him a friend.

Some Knoxville priests mentioned another seminarian, who studied in the diocese from 2015 until 2017. 

Diocesan officials had concerns about that seminarian, priests told The Pillar, and were confused that Stika was insistent about keeping him in the diocese after objections were raised, even while the bishop was willing to dismiss other seminarians about whom similar concerns had been raised.

Through a spokesman, Stika said that seminarian was dismissed from the Diocese of Knoxville in December 2017, but he would not convey the reasons, and declined additional questions.

Stika’s alleged “infatuations” are “not necessarily violations of the sixth and ninth commandment, but definitely boundary issues between the appropriate relationship of a bishop to a subject in his diocese,” one senior diocesan priest told The Pillar.

A Vatican official confirmed to The Pillar last week that “about 10” reports against Stika have been received by the Congregation for Bishops and are being reviewed. 

The official said the complaints were “serious,” and included seemingly questionable “living arrangements” made by Stika to accommodate the seminarian who was recently dismissed from seminary. 

“They are not light matters, and they are being considered seriously,” the official said, adding that it is a “reasonable expectation” that the congregation will grant metropolitan Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville power to investigate the situation.

Priests in Knoxville told The Pillar that issues go beyond personnel decisions.

In March 2020, a priest of the diocese circulated an email to other local priests, saying Stika’s leadership was a problem in the diocese, and was “getting worse.”

The email accused Stika of “lying, bullying, bad example-setting, shaming, overspending, not following through with what he said he would do, and going through the guise of consulting but not taking any of our suggestions into consideration.” 

“My heart and my prayers go out to the bishop,” the priest wrote, adding he “is not capable of understanding how his behavior affects us.” 

He urged other priests both to prayer, and to express their concern to Stika directly.

“We all care for him as a brother priest and as our bishop, and I believe that the most loving Christian way that we can help him is to share our truth,” the priest wrote.

“I’m mourning the loss of many of our brothers who could not take it in this insanity. So many of our brother priests have left, have been kept out, or have retired early,” he added.

The Pillar has spoken with numerous priests in the Knoxville diocese, all of whom requested anonymity for fear of retribution, and who shared similar sentiments.

“I'm hoping that whatever comes of all of this, that we can go through a process of recovery as a presbyterate, because we’ve just been battered for years. And when you have someone that singles people out and goes after them, over the years the bishop will have gone after enough people that he has a level of control, that he can do things that aren't right and get away with it. And everyone's afraid to say anything,” one priest told The Pillar.

“He is simply not capable,” another said, “no matter how much he means well. And so the diocese needs help.”

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For his part, Stika told The Pillar last week that the majority of Knoxville priests support his recent decisions regarding the seminarian, and that a “minority” criticizing him are doing so because “they don’t have all the facts.”

“The priests talking — they don’t know what’s going on,” the bishop added.

Stika, 63, was appointed to lead the Knoxville diocese in 2009. He was before that a priest of St. Louis, and both chancellor and vicar general to Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of St. Louis until 2004, who now lives with Stika in retirement. Stika was briefly archdiocesan vicar for clergy, and for several years oversaw child and youth protection policies in the St. Louis archdiocese. 

In 2018, another Tennessee bishop, Bishop Martin Holley was formally removed from office after two years leading the Memphis diocese, after a Vatican-ordered investigation concluded his leadership was ineffective.  

For his part, Stika declined questions from The Pillar regarding his leadership of the Knoxville diocese.

“Bishop Stika said he has nothing to hide and does not want to comment on those who might criticize his management style,” a spokesman told The Pillar on Thursday. 

The Vatican has not yet announced whether it will launch a formal investigation.

Stika told priests by email last week that “if the Holy See decides to investigate,” he would “welcome it with open arms and will cooperate fully. I ask the same of you. Time will tell.”