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Stika lawsuit: What's next for the Knoxville diocese?

The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Knoxville, Tennessee. Credit: Nheyob/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

A lawsuit filed Tuesday against Bishop Rick Stika and the Knoxville, Tennessee, diocese provides new details about allegations of both diocesan cover-up and a sexual assault committed by a former diocesan seminarian who remains close to the bishop.

Both the alleged assault and ensuing administrative misconduct, including the removal of an investigator appointed to look into the matter, were first reported in 2021 by The Pillar.

But while the suit brings to light more allegations against Stika, it also makes nearly certain that the Holy See will not be forthcoming about the results of its own investigation into the bishop, which began last year.

At the crux of the Feb. 22 lawsuit are these allegations:

Stika invited in 2018 to the diocese a Polish seminarian, Wojciech Sobczuk, who had been dismissed from the Society of Jesus after being accused of sexual misconduct at St. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

For his part, Stika told The Pillar he invited Sobczuk, after a recommendation from Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, but he did not mention the allegations of misconduct in Orchard Lake.

Stika hired Sobczuk as a diocesan employee, had him live in a rectory, and told people he was a diocesan seminarian who would be in studies in a future semester. Stika told The Pillar this was a period of evaluation, but the Knoxville diocese presented him as a seminarian in October 2018.

In February 2019, Sobczuk allegedly raped an organist employed by the diocesan cathedral. He allegedly sexually harassed the organist before and after the alleged rape. The organist contacted the police, but fearing for his employment, decided not to make a police report.

A few days after the alleged rape, the organist received an inscribed missal as a gift from Stika, with whom he had never had a serious conversation. The gift was delivered by Sobczuk. A week after the alleged rape - on Valentine’s Day- the organist received a note from Sobczuk which included an apology “for what was wrong.”

Stika maintains he personally investigated the alleged rape, along with the cathedral rector, and concluded it “never happened.” The lawsuit says that investigation did not actually take place.

Sobczuk moved into the bishop’s house shortly after the alleged rape, and was then sent to St. Meinrad Seminary. He was dismissed from that seminary in February 2021, after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. He returned to the diocese, remained classified as a diocesan seminarian, again lived in Stika’s house, and was given a diocesan job. Stika has conceded all of that, save for the dismissal, which The Pillar has otherwise confirmed. Stika told priests of the diocese that Sobczuk could return to academic formation in two years’ time.

Because the assault allegation persisted in the diocese, the diocesan review board appointed a respected investigator to look into it. After the investigator contacted seminary and chancery officials with questions, Stika summarily replaced him. He told The Pillar the investigator was confusing things by asking questions. Stika replaced him with an investigator who interviewed only Sobczuk before concluding his investigation. Stika maintains that investigation was just.

  • Stika is alleged to have said publicly that the organist committed an assault against Sobczuk, rather than the other way around. Several priests in the diocese have confirmed being told this, and Stika has repeated the claim to The Pillar in on-the-record conversations.

Those are the allegations, or most of them. But which parts are certain?

Stika confirmed to The Pillar he acted to interfere with a diocesan review board investigation into an allegation of serious sexual misconduct on the part of a man he continued to classify as a diocesan seminarian.

Sobczuk, of course, has never been a cleric, and it is not clear whether the alleged victim was a “vulnerable person” — and thus it is not clear whether Stika’s interference is directly prohibited by Vos estis lux mundi, the Vatican policy governing such matters. But to some Catholics, the bishop’s action has the appearance of a cover-up.  

Stika also admitted directly to something which could well be classified as immigration fraud — he told The Pillar that he maintained Sobczuk as a diocesan seminarian after he was dismissed from St. Meinrad’s, keeping his visa active, until Sobczuk could be enrolled in university studies, which would continue the visa.

  • And it seems clear that Stika has accused an alleged assault victim, not only of fabricating his claim, but of actually committing sexual assault himself — he has told The Pillar as much, among others.

All of that has seemingly been investigated by the Holy See.

And while the Vatican has not yet responded publicly, many Catholics, including canonists and experts in safe environment policies, have asked whether such a fact pattern, coupled with those allegations, wouldn’t warrant removal from office.

For his part, Stika maintains that he’s been misunderstood — the subject of a gossip campaign by a few discontented priests and some activists, which was amplified by a salacious media outlet - The Pillar.

Accusing The Pillar last year of reporting “fake news,” the bishop promised that he would “sue your ass” over The Pillar’s news reporting on the allegations against him. No lawsuit followed.

Subsequently, Stika invited The Pillar to Knoxville for hours of interviews, and encouraged priests of the diocese to speak with The Pillar’s reporter.

Bishop Richard Stika offers Mass May 11, 2021 at Knoxville’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

The suit contains other allegations about Stika. Not all of them indicate wrongdoing.

The lawsuit mentions, for example, the bishop’s alleged use of an alias, Richard Dinsmore.

The Pillar has confirmed that a Richard Dinsmore has long been associated with residences occupied by Stika in Missouri and Tennessee, including a Missouri rural property, and with the addresses of parishes and administrative offices in the Diocese of Knoxville. It would appear that Stika himself had a habit of using email addresses associated with the name Richard Dinsmore. That possibility, however, has not been definitively confirmed.

The Pillar began looking into Stika’s alleged “alias” in late 2021. While alias email addresses have a correlation to Stika, diligent reporting has found no evidence which definitively confirms Stika as their user, or which indicates that the email addresses have been used for nefarious purpose.

It is possible the bishop maintains “throw-away” email addresses under a different name, using them for website accounts, subscriptions, or mailing lists. A bishop, as a public person, might find certain advantage to an anonymous web presence.

The Knoxville diocese has not responded to questions about the email address.

Whatever is true about “Richard Dinsmore,” Richard Stika faces the challenge of widespread public discomfort with his alleged and confirmed activity in the Knoxville diocese.

The Apostolic See has likely heard as much from Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who was appointed to investigate the allegations of misconduct, which first were raised to the Vatican by priests of the Knoxville diocese. It has heard as much from at least a dozen priests of the diocese, who have recounted patterns of behavior they find objectionable and distressing. It has heard the same from The Pillar’s reporting on the subject. And now it has heard from an alleged rape victim, who says that Stika covered up for his assailant.

It is not clear whether the Holy See has heard that Stika has acted retributively towards priests he believes have spoken to the media about him — a charge confirmed by multiple sources in the Knoxville diocese. It is not clear the Holy See knows that Stika has told his priests he has already been exonerated, or is aware of his oft-repeated claim that apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre told him he has “nothing to worry about.”

It is also not clear whether the Apostolic See has heard from Stika’s housemate, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who has known the bishop since 1994, and is said to be a great promoter of Stika’s rise through the episcopal ranks. Stika has told The Pillar that Rigali is a mentor to him, a friend and a father figure.

Stika also told The Pillar last year that while he was the cardinal’s priest secretary, he “taught [Rigali] how to be a bishop in the United States.”

The friendship is clearly a close one.

Stika poses with Cardinal Justin Rigali on the cover of his 2017 Christmas card. Rigali, who worked with Stika in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, resides in Stika’s Knoxville home.

But the lawsuit filed Tuesday makes increasingly clear how the Holy See’s investigation into Stika is likely to end, and how it is not.

It is possible that, despite the lawsuit, the allegations, the bishop’s own admissions, and the discontent they’ve sown, nothing will happen. The Holy See has not even officially acknowledged its investigation into Stika, and, while it would befuddle many Catholics, it is not unimaginable that nothing will come of those things, or the Holy See will decide they are minor infractions, or insufficiently proven.

Litigation can usually be settled, journalists who press on too long are dismissed as cranks, and perhaps presbyterates eventually move on from a period of scandal.

Stika, who is 64, could well serve another decade as a diocesan bishop in Knoxville, Tennessee.

It is also possible that the bishop will resign citing “health problems,” with no official acknowledgment of the misconduct alleged in the Diocese of Knoxville, or even that acknowledged by the bishop. That approach is, after all, the Holy See’s established pattern in matters like this.

Bishop Michael Hoeppner was the first U.S. bishop to resign from office after a Vos estis lux mundi investigation. When it happened, on April 13, 2021, the Holy See’s announcement was simple: “The Holy Father has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the diocese of Crookston, United States of America, presented by Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner.”

While the Crookston diocese offered more substantive comment about the investigation into Hoeppner, the Vatican did not. It did not disclose any information gained from its 17-month investigative process. And even without the Tennessee lawsuit, it seems reasonable to expect that if Stika is ousted, the Vatican would play from the same script.

The litigation, however, makes disclosure all the more unlikely.

A candid admission that Stika was found by the Vatican to have committed any wrongdoing — or even suspected of it — would bolster the plaintiff’s case, and potentially amplify the Knoxville diocesan liability. That move seems beyond the realm of possibility for the Holy See, in which a culture shift from institutional self-protection to much promised “transparency” will take a very long time, if it is to happen at all.

Stika himself is on vacation this week. It is not clear what the bishop makes of the lawsuit against him, or how he expects it will impact his prospects in episcopal ministry. But while Catholics in Knoxville hope the lawsuit might bring them closer to answers, if they’re looking to the Vatican, it probably won’t.

‘The Pillar’ is news and analysis that matters. We make journalism that makes a difference. And to keep it going, we really need you on the team.

Read all The Pillar’s reporting 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. 23, 2022: Stika, Knoxville diocese, sued for alleged rape cover-up

Correction: The Pillar initially reported that Stika brought Sobczuk to the Knoxville diocese in 2019. In fact, Sobczuk came to the diocese in 2018 and was already identified as a diocesan seminarian that year. The Pillar has updated our report.

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