Vatican verdict looms for Knoxville bishop
News: Vos estis lux mundi
A report on Knoxville’s Bishop Rick Stika is under review at the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, months after multiple allegations of administrative and personal misconduct triggered an investigation into Stika’s leadership.
Vatican sources tell The Pillar that a Vatican-ordered investigation was conducted over the summer, and that a decision is expected soon on whether Stika will remain in ministry as diocesan bishop.
Among other things, Stika is accused of sidelining an investigator appointed to scrutinize allegations of sexual assault and misconduct committed by a former diocesan seminarian, with whom the bishop is alleged to have an inappropriately close relationship.
The bishop told The Pillar in April that the charge against him was “fake news.” And last month, while Stika remained under investigation, he took the former seminarian on a vacation — a 10-day road trip along with Cardinal Justin Rigali.
An investigation into Stika’s leadership was ordered in May, and conducted by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville. The complaints made against Stika include his interference in the investigation of sexual misconduct, an imprudent relationship with the former seminarian, and a longstanding pattern of inappropriate relationships, which some priests of the diocese have called “grooming.”
Before the Vatican’s investigation into Stika got underway, the bishop admitted that he did intervene into the local investigation of the seminarian, moving to replace an investigator appointed by a diocesan review board, whom he said was not competent to conduct the probe.
In an interview, Stika told The Pillar that an investigator initially appointed to the case had exceeded his mandate, causing confusion in the diocese by “asking all these questions about [the seminarian], to people who had no idea who he was and what he was doing.”
The seminarian, who was dismissed from seminary studies after he was accused of serial sexual harassment at the institution where he studied, was also accused of sexually assaulting a former parish staffer in the Knoxville diocese.
Stika told The Pillar he intervened only because he “knew in [his] heart” that the seminarian is “absolutely innocent.”
Complaints filed to the Vatican in April charged that the bishop had an unusually close relationship with the seminarian, which gave the appearance of impropriety.
The former seminarian was invited to live in the bishop’s home after he was dismissed from seminary studies, and given a job and office in the diocesan chancery. Priests and laity in the diocese told the Vatican that seemed inappropriate.
Stika acknowledged the seminarian had stayed in his home at other times during formation, including for an evaluative period in 2019. In December 2020, Stika described the seminarian in a social media post as a part of his “household,” which, he said, feels like “my family.”
But the bishop told The Pillar that the situation in spring 2021, after the seminarian was dismissed from studies, was only a temporary arrangement of a few weeks, and that he did not believe it was problematic.
The Knoxville diocese has not responded to questions about Stika’s decision to bring the former seminarian along on the vacation he took in August.
While Stika announced on social media that he would be vacationing with Rigali, he made no mention of the former seminarian. But the former seminarian appears in a video Stika posted during the trip; three people who know the former seminarian independently identified him in the video.
Stika told The Pillar in May that although the seminarian has been accused of sexual assault or harassment several times, he intends to readmit him as a diocesan seminarian in two years.
In May, Bishop Stika asked The Pillar to tell the “whole story” of the allegations he faced. So we did.
Responding to charges of “grooming relationships” with young adults and a former priest, Stika told The Pillar in May that his close friendships were sometimes perceived incorrectly, and said that some priests in the diocese spread uncharitable rumors because they opposed his leadership.
Priests and laity have also accused Stika of mismanaging archdiocesan finances, and borrowing cash from designated funds to subsidize diocesan operations or service debt. Stika has said those allegations are inaccurate. Diocesan priests were notified this week that the diocesan revolving fund will soon repay a $1.5 million loan to the Catholic Education Trust Fund, and pay down $3 million of bank debt.
Vatican officials close to the Congregation for Bishops told The Pillar this month that Kurtz had filed a report on his findings in the diocese, and the issue is now under consideration. Last week, a spokesman for Kurtz told The Pillar that, given the confidentiality of the process, the archbishop was unable to comment.