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Stika 'bullied' Catholic over mishandled allegations, woman claims

Bishop Richard Stika. Credit: Diocese of Knoxville.

A Tennessee priest who later left ministry did not face a review board or canonical procedure after an allegation of inappropriate behavior with a minor, and a local woman says the Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, lashed out at her when she reported the alleged misconduct.

Kathleen Porterfield of Athens, Tennessee, told The Pillar that her experience parallels the charges made against Bishop Rick Stika in a February lawsuit, which allege that the bishop did not properly handle an allegation of rape made in 2019 against a diocesan seminarian.

“Stika had such a bullying personality,” Porterfield told The Pillar, “he was just basically telling me to shut up and sit down. And children were involved…and when I saw this bishop protecting a priest, and how he wasn’t vetting them. He was just trying to save his own skin when this stuff started bubbling up.”

In 2017, Porterfield and her family were involved parishioners at St Mary’s Parish in Athens. Porterfield helped with liturgies, with Vacation Bible School, with religious education — and was chair of the parish pastoral council.

When a new priest was appointed to the parish that year, Porterfield looked forward to working with him. But quickly, she saw things that concerned her. The priest drank — a lot, she said, and often during the day.

Porterfield noticed the drinking, and so did other parishioners. The priest also seemed lonely, parishioners said, and made inappropriate comments about young women in the parish, focused especially on their appearance.

The priest urged that a university faith group meet at his rectory rather than on the campus of the local college. He seemed to defy ordinary boundaries, growing too close to families, in a manner Porterfield thought resembled grooming — or at least developed close friendships with women that made some at the parish uncomfortable.

Porterfield decided to contact the Knoxville diocese when a family in the parish told her that the priest had been tickling their daughters, one of whom was a teenager, during a visit to the family home.

The priest seemed to think it was innocent, but tickling was a line that should not have been crossed, Porterfield concluded, and inappropriate.

Porterfield contacted diocesan officials on August 26, 2017.

She was referred first to the diocesan vicar for clergy — “I told him everything,” she recalled, and then sent in a written statement, as did another family in the parish.

A few days later, Porterfield says Bishop Stika called her.

“I told him everything, too,” she told The Pillar — the tickling, the inappropriate comments, the alcohol.

“[Stika] kept on saying ‘Oh, it’s the alcohol, it’s the alcohol,’” Porterfield recalled. She said the bishop insisted the priest, who had been ordained a few years earlier, was a good man in need of help.

“Bishop Stika goes into this very fatherly tone about how [the priest] is going to go into this treatment center, and it’s going to help him out. And I told him that I didn’t think this guy was ready to be a priest, and that’s when we concluded the conversation.”

Porterfield began to hear other rumors in the parish, and to hear that other Catholics in the diocese had raised complaints about the priest. She and other families were nervous the priest would complete only a brief counseling program before returning to the parish. Porterfield said the family of the girls who had been tickled had begun telling families in the parish what had happened.

Parishioners told The Pillar that, in early September, the priest told parishioners himself that he had been accused of alcoholism and “boundary issues,” and would be gone briefly for treatment.

And then, just a day or two after the priest left the parish, Porterfield says she got another call from Bishop Stika.

“I was up at church, and all the core church ladies were there.”

“And Stika called me, and when I got this call, I thought I was going to get some answers on what is happening. But I was totally blindsided. Because he got on the phone and he was just so mad at me. He was just, like, really mad.”

“He kept repeating again: ‘You ruined a priest’s life. This is all your fault,’” Porterfield said.

“He just kept repetitively drilling it: ‘You’ve ruined a priest’s life. You’ve ended a priest’s life.’”

Porterfield recalls that in addition to defending the priest, Stika accused her of spreading rumors. She says she told the bishop that she had talked only with the parish DRE and youth minister, and only about what she had reported to the diocese.

“And then he told me: ‘I have to come down there and clean up the mess that you started.’”

The Knoxville diocese declined to comment on Porterfield’s account of the telephone call. But Porterfield told The Pillar, “that’s when I just realized that my faith — my Catholic faith — was really damaged by the leadership of our diocese.”

“My whole world was rocked at this point. I cried so hard, and I came out and all of these other women saw me just break down and cry.”

“It’s one of the worst moments of my life.”

“I am trying to find my way back to the Church. But every time I feel that Stika is the one in charge of our diocese, it just makes me pull back. He’s just so powerful in the diocese, and I’m a little bit scared, because there’s so much at stake for him,” Porterfield said.

After reviewing records from the case, Knoxville diocesan spokesman Jim Wogan told The Pillar Friday that it “does not appear that the [priest's case] went before the full review board.”

Nor were the allegations subject to a formal canonical investigation, sources close to the chancery told The Pillar.

But Wogan said the diocese did handle the case appropriately.

“Based on a review of our records, it's clear that the concerns raised were taken seriously, and the diocese believes it took appropriate steps to determine whether the priest was worthy of continued ministry,” he told The Pillar.

Diocesan sources close to the chancery recalled that Bishop Stika told staffers after the allegation that he had consulted internally and concluded the case did not need to go before the review board.

The priest was sent for treatment at Guest House, a Michigan treatment facility for clerics, and then returned to the diocese. Wogan did not clarify what assignment the priest held after his return from treatment, or where he was in residence.

For her part, Porterfield said she was angry when she learned in 2018 that the priest had apparently returned to ministry, and was hearing the confessions of children at a confirmation retreat attended by one of the children whom he had allegedly tickled inappropriately.

One Knoxville priest noted that because there was no canonical or review board process, St. Mary’s Parish had no chance for resolution, and the accused priest had no formal chance to defend himself.

“If anyone kept [the priest] from being able to move on, it was Bishop Stika,” the priest said. “Even if [the priest] would have admitted that he was wrong in some ways, but wanted to explain some of what happened or he thought some of it wasn’t accurate, there just wasn’t that opportunity with the review board or anything.”

“There just wasn’t a clear process to see things taken care of, where [the priest] knew what he was accused of, and it was handled however it needed to be. [Stika] just didn’t want to handle it except in his own way,” a Knoxville priest close to the situation told The Pillar.

It is not clear whether the diocese contacted law enforcement authorities after receiving the allegation in 2017. Wogan has not yet responded to The Pillar concerning that possibility.

Porterfield said she was only in contact with law enforcement in 2018, after she contacted the USCCB about the way her complaint was handled in the Knoxville diocese. Porterfield said she was unsure whether anything came of a police investigation.

The accused priest has now left ministry and sought laicization from the Vatican. The Pillar confirmed that the diocese paid for the priest to take courses to prepare for a new career field.

“That was against the recommendation of the bishop’s close advisers on this,” a source close to the Knoxville chancery said. “There is definite dissatisfaction with the way the bishop handled that.”

Porterfield’s account comes as Stika faces both a lawsuit and a Vatican investigation, amid charges that he interfered with a diocesan investigation into a rape allegation against a former seminarian. The lawsuit also charges that Stika defamed the alleged rape victim.

The Feb. 22 lawsuit was filed by a former cathedral organist, who charges that he was raped and sexually harassed by seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk in February 2019, and that Stika did not take seriously the allegation — and in fact, tried to pressure him to keep silent.

Stika told The Pillar last year that he and Knoxville’s cathedral rector, Fr. David Boettner, investigated the allegation in 2019 and concluded it was not true.

The allegation was “a personnel issue in the cathedral, and I handled it,” Stika told The Pillar.

But the bishop also told The Pillar that he acted unilaterally in 2021 to replace an investigator who had been appointed by the review diocesan board to look into the allegation. Stika criticized that investigator, George Prosser, for contacting diocesan personnel to make inquiries about Sobczuk.

Stika replaced Prosser with Chris Manning, a retired police officer who interviewed only Sobczuk, and neither the alleged victim nor possible witnesses, before filing a report which exonerated the seminarian.

Among those potential witnesses were men who claim they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Sobczuk at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, from which he was dismissed in 2021. While Stika said those men “did not want to be interviewed,” one told The Pillar he was never contacted by anyone asking him to participate in the diocesan investigation.

Sobczuk has been accused of sexual misconduct in a Michigan seminary, in an Indiana seminary, and in the Knoxville diocese. Stika told The Pillar that the Indiana allegations were minor “boundary violations” and the Knoxville allegation was false, because he “knew in my heart” that the seminarian was innocent.

The bishop has also criticized media attention of the affair.

Stika told The Pillar last year that its media coverage of the allegations against Sobczuk had “ruined a seminarian’s vocation.”

“I make no apologies, because [Sobczuk] was a victim,” he added, emphasized that The Pillar had “destroyed a young man’s vocation.”

“I got enough facts to back me up,” the bishop told The Pillar last year. “If you run a story questioning my integrity, it ain’t gonna work.

Stika told the diocese in late February that he plans to “vigorously challenge” the lawsuit’s allegations. It is not clear when the Vatican is expected to reach a resolution to its investigation of the bishop.

Read all The Pillar’s news and analysis on Bishop Rick Stika:

April 23, 2021: Stika facing likely 'Vos estis' Vatican investigation
April 29, 2021: Stika accepted deacon accused of misconduct; Knoxville priests criticize 'pattern' of leadership
May 17, 2021: Knoxville bishop replaced investigator in seminarian probe
May 22, 2021: Bishop Stika wants 'the whole story' ahead of Vatican investigation
Sep. 22, 2021: Vatican verdict looms for Knoxville bishop
Feb. 22, 2022: Stika, Knoxville diocese, sued for alleged rape cover-up
Feb. 23, 2022: Stika lawsuit: What's next for the Knoxville diocese?
Feb. 25, 2022: Bishop Stika will 'vigorously challenge' Knoxville cover-up allegations

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