The Diocese of Knoxville asked a judge last week to shield documents from the public record, as the diocese fights back against a lawsuit which claims that Bishop Rick Stika covered up an allegation of sexual assault against a seminarian, while defaming the seminarian’s alleged victim.
In a motion filed Jan. 31, the diocese asked the court to seal from public access any subpoenaed documents that pertain to the diocesan review board, to priest meetings of the diocese, and to a Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigation in the Tennessee diocese.
Those documents would include diocesan documents, and those which might be subpoenaed from other sources, including the Knoxville clerics who made the Vos estis complaints
The diocese argued that a protective order is needed for a fair outcome to the lawsuit, because of the prospect that leaked court documents could prejudice an eventual jury.
“In light of the continued publicity that this litigation has garnered over the past year - most recently exhibited by the multitude of articles published by the Knoxville New [sic] Sentinel over the past month - the Defendant request that this Court exercise its inherent authority … to enter the proposed protective order … that will promote the just and efficient disposition of this litigation; facilitate the exchange of discovery … as well protect the Defendants’ rights to a fair trial, without improperly influenced prospective jury members.”
But while the diocese says the order is needed, some priests in the diocese told The Pillar they believe it is an effort to silence the clerical whistleblowers who initially raised complaints against Bishop Stika.
The motion is the second time the Knoxville diocese has asked that a seal be placed on documents produced during the lawsuit’s discovery phase.
In August, Judge Jerome Melson dismissed a petition from the Knoxville diocese, which asked the court to exempt from subpoena all diocesan records related to a Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigation into Bishop Stika's leadership.
Melson rejected the diocesan argument that Vos estis documents are protected by the clergy-penitent confidentiality privilege recognized in Tennessee law.
Citing a 2019 rescript from the Holy See on the confidentiality of canon law proceedings, Melson told the court that he would “respectfully deny” the diocesan plea.
But it is not clear whether the judge will agree to seal documents from the public eye.
In its Jan. 31 motion, the Knoxville diocese argued that any material pertaining to the diocesan review board, the Vos estis investigation into Stika, or meetings between Stika and priests of the diocese should only be available to people involved in the case — and that anyone who leaks sealed documents from the case should be subject to legal sanctions.
The Diocese of Knoxville has declined to comment on its most recent motion. For his part, the plaintiff’s attorney told The Pillar that he intends to oppose the motion in court, and is now preparing a response.
The lawsuit against the Knoxville diocese charges that Stika impeded an investigation into the claim that former seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk sexually assaulted the lawsuit’s plaintiff, who worked as a musician at the Diocese of Knoxville’s cathedral.
The suit was initially filed in February 2022, but had to be refiled last month, after a court agreed last year with the Diocese of Knoxville’s argument that the plaintiff could not file the lawsuit using a pseudonym.
The newly filed suit charges that 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 furnished Sobczuk’s alleged victim with gifts soon after the alleged assault.
The suit also charges that Stika defamed the alleged victim, by claiming in public that he was the aggressor, and had sexually assaulted Sobczuk. The Pillar has confirmed that Stika made those claims during priest meetings in 2021. In the same year, Stika told The Pillar during an interview that Sobczuk was the victim of sexual assault, and the musician was the aggressor.
“I make no apologies, because [Sobczuk] was a victim,” he told The Pillar, charging that he believed the parish organist had been sexually aggressive toward Sobczuk.
Stika also confirmed to The Pillar that he had removed George Prosser, an investigator appointed by the diocesan board to review the allegation against Sobczuk, because, the bishop said, Prosser “was asking all these questions.”
Subsequent reporting by The Pillar found records showing that Stika had given Sobczuk thousands in diocesan funds while he was a seminarian, and that Sobczuk had been accused of a second instance of assault against a fellow seminarian.
In addition to the Sobczuk cover-up lawsuit, Stika faces an unrelated 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.
Stika has also faced criticism among parish pastors, after he leveled last year a 25% tax on funds distributed to parishes under the Paycheck Protection Program.
And in November, the Vatican dispatched two Virginia bishops to conduct an official apostolic visitation in the diocese, focusing on Stika's leadership. No results have been announced from that visitation, even while the bishop faces mounting local pressure.
But while some have asked whether the visitation might end in the bishop's resignation, Stika has given no indication he intends to back down.
In his Feb. 1, 2023 “State of the Diocese” report, Stika lamented the “one-sidedness of the reporting” about the diocese.
“There are some details being reported, based on allegations, that are just flat-out incorrect. We will respond to those and the other allegations in court when necessary,” the bishop wrote.
Stika also pushed on criticism of how the Knoxville diocese has handled the lawsuit, presumably including its push to see the alleged sexual assault victim be required to use his name in court.
“It’s disappointing that those criticizing us for utilizing the rights we’re afforded under the law would expect their rights to be protected if it were them being accused of something.”
The bishop mentioned that the diocese had recently contracted a Tennessee mental health clinic to serve as the diocesan victims' assistance coordinator.
Stika said that agreement “was a huge, positive move and might serve as a model for other dioceses. Unfortunately, all that gets lost in the sensationalism and innuendo.”