The embattled Bishop Rick Stika will be asked by Vatican officials to resign as Bishop of Knoxville, after more than two years of scandal over the bishop’s leadership of his eastern Tennessee diocese.
According to sources close to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, Pope Francis decided last month to request Stika’s resignation, after reviewing the results of a Vatican-ordered investigation into the bishop’s management.
Stika is accused of protecting Wojciech Sobczuk, a seminarian accused multiple times of sexual assault. Stika last year 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 bullying and harassment.
It is not clear whether Stika will agree to offer his resignation, but if he does not, the pope is likely to eventually remove him from office, sources said — a process which could take several months.
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 has 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.
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 legal filings last month, 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 this month 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 has confirmed that a report sent to Rome noted concerns about Stika’s leadership, the Vatican did not act to remove or sanction the bishop, and declined to officially acknowledge the investigation.
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, 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 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 has 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 disputes that charge.
“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 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.
But despite the mounting evidence against him — much of it found in diocesan records — Stika has insisted that he has 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 last month, 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 has insisted that the allegations against him stem from a very small number of critics in the diocese.
It is not clear whether Stika will tender his resignation, but is expected to soon receive a formal request — and sources in the Knoxville diocese say the bishop could resign as early as this week.
“The pope looked at everything, and he made a decision,” one senior source close to the Dicastery for Bishops told The Pillar this week.
If Stika does not offer his resignation, sources say that Pope Francis will likely remove the bishop from the helm of the Tennessee diocese — though that process might well take some time.
Priests and Tennessee Catholics have already questioned why they have waited more than two years for a Vatican response to their complaints.
Some have wondered whether Stika’s longtime friendship with Cardinal Justin Rigali — the retired Philadelphia cardinal who lives in Stika’s house — had offered him a measure of protection.
As the case gained a growing share of media attention, it has become for some a referendum on the integrity of Pope Francis’ episcopal accountability and reform agenda.
Stika, 65, has also faced health problems in recent years. The bishop has had several cardiac surgeries, lost sight some years ago in one eye, and has suffered from health complications stemming from diabetes.
Despite those challenges, and criticism of his leadership, Stika has frequently touted his tenure in the diocese, arguing that he has led the diocese during a period of growth and financial stability.
The bishop has not responded to a request for comment from The Pillar.