The Bishop of Knoxville says he will fight a lawsuit which claims he both covered up a rape allegation against a former diocesan seminarian, and defamed the alleged rape victim.
“I am taking this matter seriously and my plan is to vigorously challenge these allegations,” Bishop Rick Stika wrote in a Feb. 25 letter, distributed to priests and other personnel within the Tennessee diocese.
“We know that the legal system works deliberately, and with good reason. I welcome a thorough examination of these allegations, but this will take some time,” Stika wrote.
The bishops’ letter came after a Feb. 22 lawsuit against Stika and the Knoxville diocese, 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 lawsuit’s plaintiff says there was no investigation. Instead, he says that a few days after the alleged rape, Stika gave him an expensive gift, intended to pressure him to keep quiet. And 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!”
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 suit also accuses Stika of interfering with a 2021 diocesan review board investigation into the rape allegation.
Stika told The Pillar in April last year that “I don’t control the review board, they’re completely independent from me.”
But the next month, the bishop admitted to The Pillar that he acted unilaterally to replace the investigator appointed by the review board, whom Stika criticized for contacting diocesan personnel to make inquiries about Sobczuk.
Stika replaced that investigator with 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 Sobczak 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.
After replacing the investigator, Stika told The Pillar that he planned to readmit Sobczuk for priestly formation, despite his 2021 dismissal from St. Meinrad Seminary, and his alleged 2018 dismissal from the Society of Jesus, which reportedly came after allegations of sexual misconduct at a Michigan seminary Sobczuk attended before he went to the Knoxville diocese.
“I’m gonna reinstate him as a seminarian, because after the investigations, after talking to the rector who’s willing to take him back in two years, after the review board looked at the first case and the second case, I don’t know what else I can do,” Stika said.
It is not clear whether Stika will challenge other inconsistencies in his accounting of events. Among them is whether Sobczuk had been accepted as a diocesan seminarian at the time of the alleged 2019 rape.
The bishop told The Pillar that at the time of the alleged rape, he “had not officially received [Sobczuk] into the diocese” as a seminarian.
But Knoxville cathedral Facebook posts present Sobczuk as a seminarian, assigned to the cathedral and instituted by Stika as an acolyte, more than 7 months before the alleged assault.
Stika told priests on Friday they could read his letter from the pulpit, or use it as a resource if parishioners had questions about the suit filed against the bishop, which has made headlines in the Knoxville diocese.
In addition to the lawsuit, Stika is facing a Vatican investigation into his leadership of the diocese. That investigation began last summer and has not yet concluded. But the bishop told The Pillar he does not regret his choices.
“I make no apologies, because [Sobczuk] was a victim,” he told The Pillar, adding his belief that most Knoxville clergy stand behind him.
“I’ve talked to a number of priests and they support Wojciech,” the bishop explained in 2021.
Stika has also criticized media attention given to the affair.
“I got enough facts to back me up,” he told The Pillar last year. “If you run a story questioning my integrity, it ain’t gonna work.”
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?