A Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation will be conducted in the Diocese of Knoxville next week, several sources close to the diocese told The Pillar.
Sources told The Pillar Friday that Bishops Barry Knestout of Richmond and Michael Burbidge of Arlington have been directed to visit with priests, diocesan officials, and lay Catholics over several days, amid ongoing concern over the leadership of Bishop Rick Stika.
The decision to commission an on-site assessment of the diocese comes more than 18 months after priests in the diocese reported to the Vatican concerns about Stika’s handling of reports against a former diocesan seminarian, who was accused of sexually harassing and assaulting other seminarians and a parish organist.
While the Vatican had previously directed Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to look into allegations against Stika, the visitation of Knestout and Burbidge is believed to be a follow-up to the wide-ranging complaints raised against the Knoxville bishop, and to Kurtz' initial reports to the Vatican.
Priests told The Pillar they believe the apostolic visitation is likely the result of a September 27 meeting between Knoxville priests and Louisville Archbishop Shelton Fabre.
Fabre attended a presbyteral meeting that day, and met with Knoxville’s priests without Stika in the room.
It was “pretty open and honest, broadly speaking,” one priest told The Pillar. “No one defended [Stika], it was just people being open, and [Fabre] seemed pretty genuine about listening to us.”
“A bunch of guys stood up, and told their really hard stories, and Archbishop Fabre seemed like he really heard it,” another priest said.
“We were really listened to,” another told The Pillar.
Priests speculated that Fabre likely intervened after that September meeting, prompting the apostolic visitation.
Operational difficulties in Knoxville emerged in April 2021, when The Pillar reported that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops had received “about 10” accusations against Stika, and subsequently assigned the now-retired Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville to review the matter.
Stika admitted to The Pillar last May that he replaced an investigator during a diocesan review board investigation into a sexual assault allegation against seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk.
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 denied any wrongdoing.
In September 2021, 11 Knoxville priests wrote to apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, saying that the issues with Sobczuk and Stika were part of a larger pattern of problematic leadership.
“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 priests wrote.
The letter alleged that Stika has intimidated priests he suspected of speaking publicly or with the media about allegations of misconduct, in possible violation of norms issued by Pope Francis. It also charged that Stika had been demonstrably dishonest about a vacation he took with Sobczuk, that he frequently made lewd and unseemly jokes, even in mixed company, and that Stika had said frequently that he would not face consequences after the Vatican investigation into his handling of assault allegations.
“These are the concerning incidents of only the past few months. Taken in isolation, they are easily dismissed… But as indicators of what we’ve endured for twelve years under Bishop Stika’s leadership, they weigh heavily upon us,” they wrote.
“What we have not attempted to relay to you here by way of example is the lack of sympathy the bishop demonstrates for his priests facing personal trials, or the lack of charity he displays for such priests when he speaks about us to others, even publicly. While this disregard for his priests is the most difficult feature for us to explain to you, it is nevertheless the feature that saddens us the most, and which is only compounded by the other incidents listed above.”
“It seems to us that ours is a depressed presbyterate, and has been developing as such for twelve years, due to the leadership of Bishop Stika,” the priests added.
The letter received no response, Knoxville priests told The Pillar.
In addition to a Vatican investigation, Bishop Stika is facing litigation over his leadership in the diocese.
One lawsuit filed in February charged that Stika did not look into the 2019 assault allegation against Sobczuk, and that the bishop instead tried to cover up the accusation before enrolling Sobczuk at St. Meinrad’s Seminary for the 2019 fall term. The suit also claims that Stika defamed the assault victim by claiming that he, not Sobczuk, was the assailant.
In July, the diocese argued that Sobczuk’s alleged rape victim should be required to disclose his name publicly in his suit against the diocese. In August, a court agreed.
Another lawsuit charges 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.
In an unrelated case, a Tennessee woman told The Pillar in March that Stika bullied her when she reported a priest’s grooming behavior to the Knoxville diocese in 2017.
While the woman said the diocese should have taken seriously charges that a priest was inappropriately engaging with minors, she says Stika told her she had “ruined a priest’s life.”
Stika has also faced criticism in the diocese over financial management decisions, including the accumulation of significant debt for the construction of a new cathedral, and a 25% tax levied in 2022 against Paycheck Protection Program funds distributed to Knoxville parishes with schools.
Last month, more than 200 Knoxville Catholics sent two letters to the apostolic nunciature, asking for Vatican intervention in the diocese.
“We are left bewildered in the dark without a shepherd. It is time to rectify this; we implore you to listen to our pleas and take transparent action,” one letter said.
Despite a litany of issues raised in Knoxville, priests said they’d been uncertain whether their concerns were heard, especially after the September 2021 letter to Pierre received no response. Some said that makes it hard to be hopeful about the pending apostolic visitation.
But other priests and sources close to the Knoxville diocese told The Pillar Wednesday that they’re hopeful the visitation will lead to a leadership change, even if they’re not all convinced that will be the case.
“After everything that we’ve been through, I am hoping that this will be the one. But I am trying to temper my expectations because this has been such a long road for us,” one priest told The Pillar.
“I am trying to be hopeful,” another priest said. “But having already done it once, and sort of suffering the wrath [of Stika], I’m just not sure how this will go.”
“Of course, we keep thinking that we’ve already communicated all this. How can they not already know?”
Priests added their hope the bishops visiting will talk with a broad swath of Catholics in the diocese.
“I hope they’re speaking to a lot of laypeople, who have been struggling with the problems in our diocese — in finances, for schools, and for parishes too,” one source close to the diocese told The Pillar.
In response to questions about the apostolic visitation, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Richmond told The Pillar Friday that: “Your inquiry is not relevant to the ministry of our diocese, as such, I am unable to offer a comment.”
Neither the Diocese of Knoxville nor Arlington has yet responded to requests for comment.
But one priest told The Pillar that the apostolic visitation comes at the right time for Knoxville’s priests: “We can’t take much more, in every way. Financially, spiritually, personally — we’re just struggling, and we need some help.”