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Stika: Blaming alleged victim in rape case was in good faith

Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee admitted last week that he told priests of his diocese that a seminarian accused of rape had actually been the victim of a sexual assault, rather than its aggressor.

The bishop said a parish organist, who accused the former seminarian of rape, had actually committed the sexual assault.

Bishop Rick Stika preaches in Sacred Heart Cathedral, Knoxville, Tennessee. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

The admission came in the April 11 diocesan response to a lawsuit which alleges Stika covered up allegations of sexual assault.

The suit charges that Stika impeded an investigation into the allegation that former seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk sexually assaulted the lawsuit’s plaintiff, who worked as an organist at the Diocese of Knoxville’s cathedral.

The suit also alleges that: 

“Stika falsely stated at a General Priest Meeting at Cathedral Hall in Knoxville, Tennessee on May 25, 2021 that Plaintiff was a predator who had victimized Sobczuk. Plaintiff did not discover that Stika had made these statements until December 2022, when they were disclosed by a witness who attended the meeting and heard Stika utter those statements.”

It adds that:

“Stika falsely stated at an annual priest convocation held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on June 8, 2021 that Plaintiff had groomed Sobczuk. Plaintiff did not discover that Stika had made these statements until December 2022, when they were disclosed by a witness who attended the meeting and heard Stika utter those statements.”

In January, The Pillar confirmed with multiple sources in attendance at the May and June 2021 meetings that Stika had framed Sobczuk as the victim of sexual assault, rather than the perpetrator.

Stika himself admitted the allegations in the April 11 filing, which was obtained by The Pillar. 

The April 11 filing — the Knoxville diocese’s formal response to the cover-up lawsuit — said that when the bishop told priests that Sobczuk had been sexually assaulted by his alleged victim, his remark “accurately reflected his opinion and understanding of the underlying circumstances and events, based upon the information that was available to him at the time.”

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The April 11 filing also confirmed that Stika told The Pillar in May 2021 that the alleged victim “was lying in claiming that Sobczuk assaulted and harassed him.”

In fact, Stika told The Pillar that Sobczuk had been victimized by the organist, despite a report from the organist alleging the contrary, and despite the fact that Sobczuk had already faced other allegations of sexual misconduct.

“I make no apologies, because [Sobczuk] was a victim,” Stika told The Pillar in 2021, charging that he believed the parish organist had been sexually aggressive toward Sobczuk.

While Stika admitted those claims, he denied the charge that he had attempted to intimidate Sobczuk’s alleged victim to discourage him from reporting the alleged assault. But the bishop did confirm he had given the organist gifts and taken him out to dinner soon after the alleged assault.

Stika also confirmed The Pillar’s report that in August 2021, the bishop took Sobczuk on a 10-day road trip vacation with Cardinal Justin Rigali — even while Sobczuk had been by then dismissed from St. Meinrad’s Seminary on charges of sexual assault unrelated to parish organist.

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The diocesan April 11 filing is the latest chapter in years of controversy over Stika’s leadership in the Knoxville diocese.

Public attention began with 2021 reports from The Pillar that Stika was facing the prospect of a Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigation into charges that he interfered with a diocesan review board investigation, in order to protect Sobczuk from an allegation of sexual assault. 

In May 2021, Stika admitted to The Pillar that he had removed George Prosser, a retired TVA investigator appointed by the diocesan review board to probe the allegation against Sobczuk.

Stika removed Proser because, the bishop said, the investigator “was asking all these questions” during the course of his duties.

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.

The lawsuit against Stika — initially filed in February 2022, and refiled in January of this year — drew largely from Stika’s admissions to The Pillar regarding his handling of the allegations against Sobczuk. 

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While the Knoxville diocese has responded to the suit, it is not clear whether a trial could be forthcoming. Sources close to the case have told The Pillar that no settlement negotiations have yet begun.

But Stika is facing other problems. 

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.

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 September 2021, 11 priests from the diocese asked the Vatican for “merciful relief” from the bishop.

“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,” the 11 Knoxville priests wrote to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

The letter had not yet received a formal response. But sources in the diocese say that Stika has become increasingly erratic as he faces external pressure, threatening priests of the diocese with retribution, if he believes they are among those making reports about him, and continuing to solicit funds to support Sobczuk, who is now a university student outside the diocese.

The Diocese of Knoxville has not responded to questions from The Pillar on the April 11 filing. Stika instructed diocesan personnel last year that staff should not acknowledge requests from The Pillar, sources have confirmed.

While the bishop formally confirmed last week The Pillar’s reporting on the Knoxville diocese, he has continued to accuse The Pillar of reporting “fake news,” sources say — a charge the bishop first leveled in May 2021, the same month in which Stika told priests that Sobczuk had been the victim, not perpetrator, of sexual assault.

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