Stika facing likely 'Vos estis' Vatican investigation

News: Vos Estis Lux Mundi

The Vatican has received multiple allegations of administrative misconduct against Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, and is expected to authorize an investigation under the terms of Vos estis lux mundi, The Pillar has learned.

Complaints filed against the bishop allege that Stika impeded or restricted investigations into accusations of serial sexual misconduct by a seminarian who was living in his home, according to multiple sources in both the United States and Rome.

But Stika told The Pillar Thursday that he has acted properly, and is satisfied with the diocese’s handling of a series of misconduct reports against the seminarian. 

In February, the seminarian was dismissed from seminary studies at an institution outside the diocese, but continues to be identified as a seminarian by the Knoxville diocese. 

The seminarian was dismissed from the seminary because of several allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct, which Stika characterized as “boundary violations.” 

After he was dismissed from the seminary, the seminarian moved into the episcopal residence shared by Stika and retired Cardinal Justin Rigali. The seminarian was appointed to a staff position as the bishop’s assistant, and given an office in the diocesan chancery.

The day after the seminarian was dismissed from his seminary, Stika told priests in an email that he had entered “a two-year period of discernment. He will be assisting me at the Chancery as well as helping the Cardinal with daily activities.”

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In a phone interview April 22, Stika told The Pillar that the seminarian was dismissed for a series of “boundary violations which have now been explained,” adding that he was satisfied the concern was “baseless.” 

Stika explained that he had permitted the seminarian to remain in formation for the diocese despite the misconduct accusations. The bishop pointed out that the seminarian is eligible to reapply to the same institution from which he was dismissed in two years, as indication that concerns are not so grave as to warrant dismissal from diocesan formation.

The bishop also said he had permitted the seminarian to reside in his home, as he had done on other occasions, in part because the seminarian assists Rigali, who is 86 years old and has experienced health problems.

A Knoxville priest told The Pillar he believes that Stika has impeded or restricted investigations into the seminarian’s misconduct, even after the diocesan review board recommended a formal investigation this month. Complaints filed under the auspices of Vos estis lux mundi allege the same.

The Pillar spoke with sources close to the seminary at which he studied, who said the Knoxville seminarian had been accused numerous times of sexual harassment and misconduct. The seminarian boasted of receiving gifts from his bishop while he was in studies, and of his close relationships with cardinals and other ecclesiastical officials, sources said.  

One source said the seminarian was frequently dishonest with other seminarians.

“He has no business being a priest,” another source told The Pillar.

The seminary’s rector told The Pillar that he was unable “to comment on any situation involving a student or a diocese.” 

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A senior Vatican curial official close to the Congregation for Bishops told The Pillar this week that the congregation had received “about 10” accusations against Stika, and that they were being reviewed.

“The complaints were made under the terms of VELM [Vos estis lux mundi] and received by the congregation in the ordinary and proper way,” the official told The Pillar. “It was not a singular accusation, and there was a certain consistency to the species facti as presented by the complaints.”

The official said the complaints were “serious” and included seemingly questionable “living arrangements” made by Stika to accommodate the seminarian following his departure 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.

“This is a process, the process is working,” the official said, “but it does not work overnight, these things must happen in their proper order.” 

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In addition to the alleged misconduct at his seminary, the seminarian has been accused of sexually assaulting an employee of a Knoxville parish.

That accusation was first made known to diocesan officials in 2019, while the seminarian was residing with Stika and being evaluated as a seminary candidate. Stika told The Pillar that the allegation “came to me...and I looked into it.”

The bishop said he concluded the allegation was baseless and “we put it to rest.”

The bishop was unclear about whether the diocesan review board was involved in reviewing the matter in 2019, telling The Pillar both that he had handled it personally and “it was never brought to the review board,” but also saying that the review board had been consulted, and was satisfied that the allegation had been addressed appropriately.

At least one complaint filed against the bishop alleges that Stika told a priest reviewing the allegation in 2019 to stop looking into the matter, and threatened there would be consequences if the allegation became public. Stika denied that allegation.   

The 2019 assault allegation against the seminarian was reported again to the Knoxville diocese earlier this month. It was not reported by the alleged victim, but by a third party concerned the matter had not been thoroughly investigated. Stika told The Pillar that the diocesan review board is presently reviewing the matter. 

Chris Manning, a retired police officer and member of the Knoxville review board, was appointed by the board to look into the allegation. Manning told The Pillar that his investigation consisted of reviewing the 2019 complaint against the seminarian, and interviewing him directly. He said he was told by other members of the review board that the alleged 2019 assault victim would not want to be interviewed, and that he did not contact him subsequently.

Manning said in the course of his investigation, he also asked the seminarian about the three alleged incidents of sexual harassment or misconduct at the seminary, which the seminarian denied. The alleged incidents included both unwanted sexual conversation and unwanted touching, Manning said.

A Knoxville priest said he believes it was Stika who limited the investigation to interviewing only the seminarian himself. But while Manning confirmed that he had only interviewed the seminarian during his investigation, he said it was not because of any directive from the bishop.

The investigator told The Pillar that he had not spoken with anyone alleged to have been harassed by the seminarian because he was told by other members of the review board they did not wish to be interviewed. He conceded that he had not made efforts to contact them personally.

Stika told The Pillar that Manning only interviewed the seminarian himself, because, the bishop said, “there’s nobody else that exists” to be interviewed.

But seminary sources close to the situation said that at least one of the alleged targets of harassment has not been asked whether he was willing to speak with the Knoxville diocese or its review board. 

Manning conceded that his investigation was limited by its apparent inability to speak with other parties involved. He called that circumstance “frustrating. Don’t get me wrong. That is frustrating.”  

But he said he did not believe Stika had impeded the investigation in any way.  

Manning said he had concluded that the four allegations about the seminarian’s conduct were not sustained, based upon the evidence he had available to him.

Asked whether it was a coincidence that the seminarian had been accused multiple times of misconduct, the investigator said the allegations could have stemmed from cultural misunderstandings, or “an extreme level of naïveté.” 

“Certain parts of this made me scratch my head in regards to ‘ Why would you do this?’” Manning explained, adding that the issue might be a “maturity question.”

Manning said that he does not believe Stika has an inappropriate relationship with the seminarian, or is inordinately protecting him.

“The optics are bad on this,” he conceded. But, Manning said, “The bishop is going to make his decisions based on what he feels is best for the involved parties. And if this particular seminarian needs more exposure, and he's got an affinity towards the seminarian, which is not inappropriate and I'm not asserting that is or isn’t, because there was no indication to me that there's anything, but the desire to have the best outcome for this young man.” 

“People can infer what they wish. I don't know if you've ever been subjected to accusations when you're doing something for the right reasons. People have agendas. Priests are just as human as you and me, and there’s situations that may cause them frustration or anger. The Catholic Church is definitely not immune from grievances and personality conflicts,” he added.

“So you have the bishop, what he believes is a good decision, I’m not the party that sits in judgment of what the bishop does. He’s a competent leader. If he makes a decision and that’s criticized, he’s going to have to carry that water, so to speak, and he’s capable of doing that.”

“I do know that the bishop is a very loving and intelligent leader,” Manning said. 

“He’s a very sensitive, caring individual. He actually worries a lot about the priests in the diocese and the health of the Church.” 

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Stika poses with Cardinal Justin Rigali on the cover of his 2017 Christmas card. Rigali, who worked with Stika in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, resides in Stika’s Knoxville home.

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A source close to the diocese told The Pillar that diocesan leaders had spoken with Stika about the appearance of impropriety in the situation, particularly that the seminarian was invited to live in the bishop’s home after dismissal from seminary, but “he doesn’t think there’s any validity to any of the allegations.”

Stika “feels as though there’s nothing wrong here,” the source said. “I’m not certain there are others in the diocese who agree with him.”

One Knoxville priest said the seminarian’s situation is a concerning departure from Stika’s ordinary standards.

Bishop Stika is “just very fond of him. We've had cases of priests accused of less who have been suspended and certainly seminarians dismissed without even having any kind of assault allegations against them,” the priest said.

The priest said he hopes there will be an investigation into the misconduct allegations against the seminarian, but “there also needs to be an investigation into the bishop. And the question they need to get answered is: Why is he so protective of this person?”

There have been other cultural issues in the diocese during Stika’s tenure, the priest said, which he hopes might be addressed in any investigation. 

“You don’t cross [Stika] without feeling his wrath.” 

The priest said there are also concerns about financial administration in the diocese, and that priests have been reticent to raise those concerns. “The priests are intimidated, and they won’t speak up. In a normal and healthy diocese, priests complain about the bishop. Well, in the Knoxville diocese, priests don’t do that.”

At meetings involving the diocese, he said “everyone’s just dead silent. No one will say anything. And that’s just the atmosphere that we’re in.”

“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.”

For his part, Stika told The Pillar that the majority of Knoxville priests support his 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.

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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 Rigali, who was Archbishop of St. Louis until 2004. Stika was briefly archdiocesan vicar for clergy, and for several years oversaw child and youth protection policies in the archdiocese. 

Jim Wogan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Knoxville, told The Pillar that “the diocese has always maintained a strict adherence to the policies and procedures that have been laid down both by Rome and by the USCCB. And I think we've got a track record of showing that we have been diligent in the way that we have adhered to those policies and procedures. So I'm confident that the diocese has approached those things in the right fashion.”

Wogan added that he was unable to speak to the particulars of the investigations in question, but added that diocesan personnel are committed to acting in accord with relevant ecclesiastical norms. 

For his part, the bishop told The Pillar that he too had acted appropriately. 

“If you run that story you’re going to be embarrassed in a couple days,” Stika told The Pillar, “because we followed the process, the procedure, the review board was involved, the initial thing was a personnel issue...and I handled it.”

“It was all followed exactly, I’m not covering anything up,” he added.

“I make no apologies.”