Bishop Rick Stika faced local pushback this week after he delivered a prayer at the opening session of Tennessee’s state Senate on Tuesday.
But a spokesman for the state’s lieutenant governor defended Stika’s invitation to pray at the Nashville state house, emphasizing that the embattled bishop deserves the benefit of the doubt.
“Bishop Stika has been a pillar of the Knoxville community and a respected Catholic priest for many years,” a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally told The Pillar Thursday.
Stika and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally were criticized by both local media and some Knoxville-area Catholics over McNally’s invitation for Stika to pray at the state Senate.
The invitation came while the Diocese of Knoxville awaits the results of a November Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation into Stika’s leadership.
The visitation, conducted by two Virginia bishops, had a particular focus on Stika's handling of reports against a former diocesan seminarian, who was accused of sexually harassing and assaulting other seminarians and a parish organist.
Criticism of Stika was amplified in Tennessee this week, when the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported its independent confirmation that the bishop had interfered in a 2021 abuse investigation – replacing an investigator appointed by the diocesan review board to look into the charge that former seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk had sexually assaulted an employee of the cathedral parish.
The bishop's interference was first reported by The Pillar in April 2021, after a number of diocesan priests in Knoxville filed confidential complaints to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops.
Despite the ample reporting, McNally’s office urged caution.
“The allegations against him are just that — allegations. The bishop is entitled to the presumption of innocence just like any other American,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider told The Pillar Thursday.
But in fact, the allegations not merely allegations.
In May 2021, Stika admitted to The Pillar that he had replaced the investigator, George Prosser, because, Stika charged, Prosser had exceeded his mandate by “asking all these questions.”
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 repeatedly denied that his interference in the investigation was wrong, and insisted to a local reporter this week that he “did not cover up any abuse.”
Nevertheless, some locals have spoken out against Stika's statement.
Dave Wells of Knoxville, a former employee of a diocesan parish, told The Pillar that “if Bishop Stika is a pillar of the Knoxville community, then the foundation of that community is broken.”
“Neither Knoxville nor the Church need a pastor who covers up serious allegations of rape, or who circumvents the process to protect people. Such pastors are unworthy of their calling and forfeit the respect of the community,” Wells added.
The bishop is accused of mishandling several other issues, including allegations of sexual abuse, in his diocese.
But despite those allegations, and frequent complaints from priests, the Vatican has been thus far slow to act.
Retired Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was tapped in 2021 to look into allegations in Knoxville, but the archbishop’s report to the Vatican did not spur an official response. And priests received no response when they wrote to apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre in September 2021, asking for “merciful relief” from Stika’s leadership.
No results from the November 2022 apostolic visitation have been announced, although the matter is expected to be taken up in Rome this month.
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