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Stika said assault claim was 'baseless' 'boundary issue' for seminarian to whom he gave thousands

Bishop Rick Stika dismissed as “boundary issues” allegations that a Knoxville seminarian forcibly pinned a fellow student down after subjecting him to a barrage of graphic sexual advances, according to newly obtained records from the Diocese of Knoxville.

Diocesan records suggest that Bishop Rick Stika played down the assault allegations against the seminarian while giving him thousands of dollars in cash, furnishing him with expensive electronics, and paying his cell phone bill.

Bishop Richard Stika. Credit: JWoganDOK/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

Former Knoxville seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk was dismissed from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana in March 2021, after three fellow seminarians accused him of sexual misconduct.

One seminarian’s report described a 2020 visit to Knoxville which occurred during a school break. The seminarian wrote that Sobczuk had become a friend, and so he willingly accepted an invitation to the diocese.

But during his five-day visit, Sobczuk allegedly sent the seminarian sexually graphic Snapchat messages, frequently discussed the prospect of sharing a bed and climbed unwanted onto the seminarian’s bed, and repeatedly groped at him.

The seminarian alleged that after numerous sexual advances, Sobczuk at one point pushed him onto a couch, pinned him down, and held him forcibly for nearly a minute, groping and “tickling” the seminarian while he objected.

“I kicked at him and tried to push him away, I also told him to stop and that I did not like what he was doing. After roughly 40 to 60 seconds, he stopped,” the seminarian wrote.

“I was physically exhausted from trying to push him away from me. I was becoming mentally exhausted from his continued persistence in trying to physically touch me.”

“Once I was able to get off the couch, I left [the house] and walked around for about 45 minutes…hoping that he had calmed down by the time I got back. When I arrived back, he was in his room with the door closed. I went to the room I was staying in and closed the door and locked it. I was fearful that he was going to try to enter the room and again physically touch me,” the seminarian wrote.

“From that point forward, every time I was in my room I kept the door locked.”

Tennessee law establishes that forcible contact of a sexual nature is a felony.

The seminarian alleged that the next day, while he was upset about what had happened, Sobczuk continued to solicit him for sexual contact, with graphic text messages. The seminarian ignored or rebuffed those advances.

Later, as they rode in a car together without talking, the seminarian wrote that Sobczuk told him: “I’m not a bad person, I’m good. I’m just Wojciech.” The seminarian said he did not respond, and the two soon after “had dinner with both Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali [who lives in retirement with Stika]. Wojciech acted like nothing had happened.”

The seminarian wrote that weeks later, back at the seminary, Sobczuk apologized, claiming that he had been under a lot of pressure, and that he had “never done anything like that before.”

Stika received a copy of the seminarian’s allegations in March 2021. The next month, he described them to The Pillar as “a boundary issue that [has] now been explained.”

The bishop called the allegation “baseless,” adding that it did not merit Sobczuk’s dismissal from seminary formation.

“I think it was a knee-jerk reaction,” Stika said of the seminary’s decision to dismiss Sobczuk.

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In addition to that seminarian’s allegation, two others accused Sobczuk of serious sexual misconduct at St. Meinrad’s Seminary.

One said that he had observed Sobczuk watching him change clothes through a window.

The other said that Sobczuk had made sexual advances toward him, laying his head on his shoulder, attempting to “hold my hand by interlocking fingers,” and telling him “that my American accent was ‘sexy.’”

But Stika told The Pillar in May 2021 that those alleged behaviors also did not merit dismissal from seminary.

The bishop insisted that Sobczuk was only dismissed from St. Meinrad’s because administrators had learned online about a 2019 sexual assault allegation made against Sobczuk, which Stika said was also not true.

“The rector told me that were it not for what was on Google [about the 2019 allegation], they would have handled it internally with therapy or behavioral…. They’re all three behavioral, or could have been perceived as behavioral [issues],” Stika told The Pillar.

St. Meinrad’s administrators told The Pillar in 2021 that they could not comment on student issues.

Sobczuk could not be reached for comment, but Stika told The Pillar last year that the seminarian “denies all three” allegations made against him during his time at St. Meinrad’s Seminary.

For his part, Stika told The Pillar in May 2021 that neither the allegations from St. Meinrad’s seminary nor the 2019 allegation gave him pause about the prospect of re-admitting Sobczuk as a Knoxville seminarian. The bishop said at that time he intended to readmit Sobczuk as a diocesan seminarian after a period of two years.

Sources close to the seminary have characterized the alleged incidents as sexual assault and harassment. The Pillar asked the Knoxville diocese this week whether Stika might have mischaracterized them as boundary issues; the diocese declined to comment.

In addition to the detailed St. Meinrad allegations made against Sobczuk, The Pillar obtained this month Knoxville diocesan fiscal records which indicate that between mid-2018 and 2020, Stika allocated $4,000 of diocesan funds as cash gifts for Sobczuk, and directed the diocese to purchase for Sobczuk a $2,000 laptop, to supplement the laptop provided to each seminarian for schoolwork.

Fiscal records indicate that the Knoxville diocese also paid Sobczuk’s monthly cell phone bill from 2018 until 2020. The diocese also reimbursed Sobczuk nearly $30,000 during that period for travel, car repair, “birthday expenses,” and other expenditures — in addition to covering educational expenses and the $600 - $1,000 allocated to Sobczuk in monthly stipends.

During several months of the period between 2018 and 2020, Sobczuk lived in Stika’s house. Stika arranged for Sobczuk to miss more than a week of classes in December 2019 to accompany him on the ad limina visit to the Vatican.

After Sobczuk was dismissed from St. Meinrad’s, the bishop took him on a 10-day road trip vacation.

The Pillar asked the Knoxville diocese whether those gifts and expenditures are comparable to outlays for other diocesan seminarians, but the diocese declined to comment. But former Knoxville seminarians told The Pillar that even the amount allocated to Sobczuk in monthly stipends far exceeds the ordinary diocesan allocation for seminarians.

While Sobczuk allegedly told his 2020 victim that he “had never done anything like that before,” he had previously been accused of sexual assault.

The former seminarian came to the Knoxville diocese in 2018, after he was reportedly dismissed from the Society of Jesus amid allegations of sexual misconduct at St. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

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

In Knoxville, Sobczuk was accused of raping and sexually harassing a parish organist in February 2019.

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. The matter was not sent to the diocesan review board, Stika said, “because it was a personnel issue and there are laws about personnel issues.”

The bishop did not indicate to which laws he was referring, or which Tennessee laws might have prevented the review board from assessing a claim of sexual assault by a new diocesan seminarian.

After Sobczuk was dismissed from St. Meinrad’s in 2021 he remained classified as a diocesan seminarian. Concerned about the impact of the 2019 allegation on the Knoxville Catholic community, the diocesan review board attempted its own investigation of the matter.

While that investigation was organized under the aegis of the diocesan review board, Stika unilaterally replaced the initial investigator appointed by the board before his investigation got underway, because, the bishop told The Pillar last year, he “was asking all these questions.”

The St. Meinrad’s seminarians were not contacted by the Knoxville diocese during the investigation, by the first investigator, or by the one with whom Stika replaced him. The second investigator, appointed by Stika, interviewed only Sobczuk before filing his report on the issue.

A lawsuit filed by the alleged rape victim this February charges that Stika did not look into the alleged assault in 2019, and that instead the bishop tried to cover up the rape allegation before enrolling Sobczuk at St. Meinrad’s Seminary for the 2019 fall term.

In addition to the alleged cover-up, the lawsuit charges that Stika has said publicly that the organist - the plaintiff - and not the seminarian, was actually the one to commit the assault.

Several Knoxville priests have confirmed that claim, telling The Pillar that Stika has told them that the organist, not Sobczuk, was the attacker.

And in April 2021, Stika repeated that claim to The Pillar. The bishop said that Sobczuk, the seminarian, was “sexually attacked by the organist,” rather than the other way around.

The organist — identified in the lawsuit only as John Doe — charges that Stika’s claim is an act of defamation.

The lawsuit presents a handwritten note from Sobczuk, written the week after the alleged rape, in which he told the organist: “for what was wrong — I apologize with all my heart!”

The Knoxville diocese is set to file its response to the alleged victim’s lawsuit in early May.

In addition to that lawsuit, Stika and the Knoxville diocese are also facing litigation on 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.

Fr Antony Punnackal, CMI, is facing sexual battery charges in Tennessee, connected to the allegation that in February 2020 he sexually assaulted a grieving parishioner who had just lost her husband.

Punnackal was not removed from ministry until after he was indicted in January, almost two years after the alleged assault, while the lawsuit claims the Knoxville diocese was informed about the sexual assault shortly after it happened, when the woman contacted law enforcement. Bishop Stika did not pursue any canonical inquiry into the allegation or make any efforts to restrict the priest’s ministry, according to the suit.

In another 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.”

The Vatican last year commissioned Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville to investigate allegations against Stika, after the Congregation for Bishops received approximately 10 complaints about the bishop’s leadership, which included concerns about his relationship with Sobczuk, in order to concerns about erratic behavior and fiscal imprudence.

While Kurtz has reportedly filed a report with Vatican officials, no action has yet been announced.

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
March 11, 2022: Stika 'bullied' Catholic over mishandled allegations, woman claims
April 25, 2021: New lawsuit accuses Stika of new cover-up

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