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Pope Francis accepted Tuesday the resignation from office of Bishop Rick Stika, the embattled Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, who was accused in 2021 of several failures of leadership, including the cover-up of sexual assault allegations made against a diocesan seminarian.

The Vatican appointed Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville to serve as apostolic administrator of the Knoxville diocese; Fabre said Tuesday morning that he would appoint a Knoxville priest to assist him in that role.

Bishop Rick Stika during a 2021 tour of Knoxville’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

The resignation comes six weeks after The Pillar reported that the Vatican would request the bishop’s resignation — and after priests of the Knoxville diocese spent more than two years asking the Vatican to address Stika’s alleged failures of leadership.

In an email to priests June 27, Stika cited his health problems, adding that “questions about my leadership … weighed on me emotionally and physically. For these reasons, I asked the Holy Father for relief from responsibilities as a diocesan bishop.”

Stika told his priests that he expected to “remain in active ministry, but at a slower pace,” and that he would likely move to St. Louis, Missouri, his hometown, along with Cardinal Justin Rigali, with whom he has lived for several years.

Writing that “God has blessed me with almost 66 years of life,” the bishop added that “I have been a Catholic priest for most of that time, and I have tried my best to be a good shepherd.”

Reflecting on the Acts of the Apostles, Stika noted that “the Church isn’t perfect — it’s human, but it continues to grow in goodness, thanks be to God.”

“I offer my genuine and heartfelt apology to anyone I have disappointed over the years,” he wrote.

“I have tremendous respect for everyone, even my detractors. I will continue to keep all of you, and this diocese, in my prayers.”

“I humbly ask that you please pray for me,” he added.

But in a surprise disclosure Tuesday morning, Stika told a local journalist that he had been sexually abused by a priest when he was a teenager, and added that he had never covered up abuse in his diocese.

“I myself was a victim of sexual abuse when I was a freshman in high school, by a priest, and look at me,” Stika said.

“I did the therapy, and I’m quite honest and open with it,” the bishop said. It does not appear Stika had ever disclosed that allegation publicly before.

‘The whole story’- Read The Pillar’s 2021 profile of Bishop Rick Stika here

Stika is accused of protecting Wojciech Sobczuk, a seminarian accused multiple times of sexual assault. Stika in 2021 admitted to The Pillar that he interfered with a diocesan review board investigation into the allegation that Sobczuk raped a parish organist, telling The Pillar that the seminarian was the victim of the alleged sexual assault, not the aggressor.

The bishop is also accused of mishandling other sexual misconduct allegations in the diocese, and has been accused by his presbyterate of financial mismanagement, along with bullying and harassment. 

The Pillar first reported in April 2021 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 the allegation of sexual assault. 

Stika admitted a close relationship with Sobczuk, who periodically lived in Stika’s house during his tenure as a diocesan seminarian.

The Pillar’s reporting found records showing that Stika had given Sobczuk thousands in diocesan funds while he was a seminarian, allocating a monthly stipend exceeding that of other seminarians, and providing for trips, laptops, and car repairs for Sobczuk.

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 that Sobczuk had sexually assaulted a parish organist in the diocese.

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

Stika insisted that he “knew in [his] heart” that Sobczuk was innocent, and appointed an investigator who interviewed only Sobczuk before filing a report on the subject, despite the fact that Sobczuk had been accused of a second instance of assault, allegedly against a fellow seminarian, leading to his dismissal from academic formation at St. Meinrad Seminary.

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The parish organist filed last year a lawsuit against Stika and the diocese, and refiled in January of this year, after the diocese argued successfully in court that the former parish organist should not be permitted to file the lawsuit anonymously.

The suit drew largely from Stika’s admissions to The Pillar regarding his handling of the allegations against Sobczuk. The suit also included records showing that Stika had given the organist a significant gift soon after the alleged assault, and taken Sobczuk and the organist out to dinner together. 

In April legal filings, Stika admitted that he had told priests of the diocese on multiple occasions that the parish organist was the aggressor in a sexual encounter with Sobczuk, despite the organist’s rape allegations.

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 Seminary on charges of sexual assault unrelated to parish organist.

​​And Stika has admitted that after Sobczuk was dismissed from St. Meinrad, the bishop kept him on as a diocesan seminarian to ensure that the young man — a native of Poland — would not run afoul of visa laws before he enrolled in college courses. 

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported in May that  — after Sobczuk was dismissed from seminary over sexual assault allegations and eventually dismissed as a diocesan seminarian — Stika decided the Knoxville diocese would pay his undergraduate tuition at Saint Louis University.

The allegations of Stika’s administrative misconduct were first investigated in 2021 by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the now-retired Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, and leader of the metropolitan province which includes the Diocese of Knoxville.

While The Pillar confirmed that a report sent to Rome noted concerns about Stika’s leadership, the Vatican declined continually since 2021 to officially acknowledge the investigation.

But priests continued to raise concern about Stika, eventually holding meeting in 2022 with Kurtz’ successor, Archbishop Shelton Fabre, who now leads the Louisville archdiocese.

Fabre is believed by Knoxville priests to have asked the Vatican to continue its investigation into Stika.

In November 2022, 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 publicly 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 — the tax aimed to pay down a larger debt connected to Knoxville’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

And Stika has faced criticism for debt the diocese incurred when it reportedly spent more than $42 million on the cathedral’s construction. 

One priest with knowledge of diocesan administration told The Pillar last year that Stika had taken cash from internally designated diocesan funds — the Pope Francis Charity Fund, and a diocesan low-income scholarship fund — in order to cover diocesan operations, largely because of the financial squeeze placed on the diocese after cathedral construction.

The bishop had disputed that charge.

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.

Sources in the diocese say that Stika had become increasingly erratic as he faced external pressure, threatening priests of the diocese with retribution, if he believed they were among those making reports about him, and continuing to solicit funds to support Sobczuk, who is now a university student outside the diocese.

But despite the mounting evidence against him — much of it found in diocesan records — Stika insisted for the last two years that he had done nothing wrong, calling the criticism against him “fake news,” and promising journalists to “sue your ass” over critical news coverage.

Stika has also been accused of retributive leadership of his priests, especially in the years since Vos estis lux mundi reports were filed against him. One priest, Fr. Brent Shelton, left the diocese in April, with sources saying the priest departed because Stika had spent years threatening him.

And others have charged that Stika has had inappropriately close relationships with a select few young adults in the diocese, while Stika has told The Pillar that his friendships have been sometimes misunderstood.

The bishop had long insisted that the allegations against him stem from a very small number of critics in the diocese.

The Vatican’s June 27 announcement did not list directly a reason for Stika’s resignation. The bishop was appointed Knoxville’s bishop in 2009. He was ordained a priest in 1985.

Stika, who turns 66 in July, has diabetes, and lost vision in one eye as the result of a diabetic coma. He has also suffered heart problems, including a 2009 heart attack and a 2018 bypass surgery.

The Knoxville diocese consists of roughly 70,000 Catholics, who make up less than three percent of the population in East Tennessee.

In an email to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Louisville, Archbishop Fabre wrote Tuesday morning that he will “begin to distribute my time between Louisville and Knoxville. It is my plan in the coming days to name a priest of the Diocese of Knoxville to assist me in caring for that diocese.”

Fabre asked Knoxville priests to meet with him Wednesday in their diocese, and to concelebrate the Eucharist with him Wednesday evening.

It is expected to be months before a new bishop is appointed permanently to lead the Knoxville diocese.

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