Bishop Stika wants 'the whole story' ahead of Vatican investigation

Bishop Rick Stika, who is only 63, has had both a heart attack and major heart surgeries. A few years ago he lost sight in his right eye. He has severe diabetes, which gives him chronic pain, and he’s walked with a limp since he fractured his foot in five places, falling from a curb while on vacation. He says he should have surgery on the foot, but because of the diabetes, there is risk that surgery could turn into amputation. 

“So I live with that. I tell people, you know, you’ve gotta laugh a little bit at life. I’ve trained this eye to close and leave this one open so I can take snoozes at meetings,” the bishop jokes. 

The limp gets more pronounced when he’s tired, I notice.

“Yeah. The limp kinda bothers me. So I just kinda pace myself, and I’ve taken some meds for it and stuff. And I really haven’t slacked off because of it. That’s life.” 

“A lot of people are worse off than me.”

Stika gave me his health report in the narthex of Knoxville’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, where he’d taken me for an after-dinner tour, well after the church had closed for the day. The bishop is proud of the cathedral, which was dedicated in 2018, nine years after Stika became the bishop of East Tennessee.

Before I could ask him any follow-up questions, Stika was into the church proper, trying to figure out how to turn on the lights, and pointing out to me odds and ends about the architecture. He showed me the ceiling stars covering the sprinkler system, and the Stations of the Cross, refurbished from the former diocesan cathedral, which is now a church hall behind the new place.

As we walked the center aisle, the bishop told me about the unusual relic in the church’s altar.  

“There’s a box that has a toothbrush in it. John Paul II’s. He left it in St. Louis. I didn’t know what to do with it. And I thought, well, it’s got his DNA. So I had a box made for it and it’s in there. So you know, unique.”

Bishop Stika showed me around the cathedral with the kind of “dad energy” that pastors tend to exude when they’ve built a new church. 

The bishop wanted to make sure I saw the clever cost-saving measures, like the faux marble columns on the baldacchino that look real, even up close, and the poured concrete flooring that sparkles like granite. And he wanted to show me the place where portraits of his two dogs, Rosie and Molly, were painted in the cupola, at the feet of St. Francis.

Stika had the same energy earlier that night, when he’d shown me the garden behind his house, and a baby squirrel he’d rescued after it had a fall from a tree in his yard. The bishop named it Rocky. 

Rocky lives now in a spacious cage on the bishop’s back patio, with comfortable bedding and ample squirrel food, whatever that consists of. I forgot to ask. 

A few days later, the bishop had that same dad energy again, when we visited an elementary school, and he joked with students finishing their exams.

To one seventh-grader, wearing a ponytail at the back of her head, he couldn’t help himself.

“I’ve got a real serious question for you. Ok? And it’s important. Do ponies wear people-tails at the back of their heads?”

The class groaned, and the ponytailed girl blushed and grinned politely. As a dad myself, I appreciated the effort. Game respects game, as it were. 

The bishop and I visited several classrooms. In each one, he joked with students. He urged them to follow Christ. He asked them about summer plans and mentioned to boys the seminary. He seemed in his element.

When we left the school, Bishop Stika said he’s energized when he spends time with students.   

“I loved being a parish priest. I just love it. I love being a pastor,” he told me as we walked away from the school.

“I tell people I sell insurance. You’ve got, you know, whole life, term life, and eternal life. You get it? Insurance salesman?”

“Anyway, people love that.”

‘The whole story’

I went to Knoxville at Bishop Stika’s invitation. The Pillar reported last month that the Congregation for Bishops in Rome had received complaints about Stika’s leadership in the Knoxville diocese, and was considering initiating an apostolic visitation, or investigation, in the diocese. 

The complaints, which came from both priests and laity in the diocese, focused on an investigation into sexual misconduct on the part of a diocesan seminarian. Priests alleged the bishop had an unusually close relationship to the seminarian, and had interfered with the investigation. 

Stika at first said the complaints were untrue; that procedures and policies had been followed completely. Eventually he told me that he had removed an investigator looking into the case, because, he said, he’d asked too many questions and caused confusion. The bishop replaced the investigator with a retired police officer whose investigation consisted only of interviewing the accused seminarian.

But Stika said some priests who complained had personal biases against him. That they didn’t understand the whole story. And that, he explained, is why he invited me to Tennessee. To tell the whole story. 

I told him I would do my best.

Stika sees “the whole story” as a well-run diocese, which is growing the faith in a missionary part of the country, building vibrant Catholic schools and thriving apostolates. The bishop pointed out to me the presence of religious sisters in the diocese, and pointed out support for the diocesan annual appeal. And he mentioned, often, that his diocese is one of few in the country with its “own” cardinal: Stika’s longtime friend and mentor, retired Cardinal Justin Rigali, lives with the bishop, in a stately house purchased for them, the bishop told me, by a California foundation.

But priests, lay leaders, and former employees told me a different story.

While in Knoxville, I talked with about 10 diocesan priests, all of whom said their diocese is in “crisis,” and described their bishop with words like “bully,” “narcissist” and “vindictive.” Some described a pattern of relationships they characterized as “grooming” — not necessarily sexually inappropriate, several told me, but seemingly disordered, and publicly embarrassing. When I asked them to suggest a priest who might support the bishop, none did. One priest laughed at the question.

Priests and one former employee also raised concerns about financial administration. One senior priest expressed concern that debt is snowballing, and that the diocese could soon become bankrupt. And several expressed concerns about undistributed pandemic relief funds. 

Priests in the diocese asked to speak with me anonymously, because, they said, they feared the bishop’s response to their remarks. They mentioned a whistleblowing priest threatened with canonical penalties last month. In light of their concerns, I granted the request. 

Before I report aspects of “the whole story,” I want to talk about methodology. 

It is newsworthy, and worth reporting, that reports about Bishop Stika have been sent to Rome. It is also newsworthy that a Vatican investigation seems to be getting underway, and that the bishop admitted to replacing an investigator amid a misconduct investigation

And I think trying to get “the whole story” around that news is worthwhile.

But I don’t like to write gossip. I don’t want to report salacious things for the sake of clicks. So during a week in Knoxville, I checked myself often, to ask whether I was actually reporting news, or whether I was instead amplifying gossip, or taking the ordinary frustrations of diocesan life and reframing them as something more. 

I have spent a lot of time in diocesan chanceries and among priests. I know that tension, disagreement, politics, and grudges are not unusual in those environments; I have tried to take that knowledge into account.

Some interviews I conducted are not included in this report, because they made claims or complaints that didn’t seem especially unusual to me. Others I didn’t report because they didn’t add anything but salacious speculation.  

And as I interviewed people in Knoxville, I asked them why they were talking to me, instead of talking to a Vatican investigator, or to the apostolic nuncio, or to an HR or safe environment person in the diocese.

Several priests said they are concerned that a Vatican investigation won’t look seriously at the constellation of issues the diocese is facing, or the crisis of leadership they perceive. Several expressed concern that Cardinal Rigali, who has sometimes referred to Stika as a “son,” would use influence in Rome to protect the bishop. Many expressed skepticism that, without public accountability, the Church’s process for justice would actually work for them.

Some lay people told me the same thing. But others said something much simpler: With a diocese they believed to be in crisis, they just had no idea where to go. Or with whom to speak. Or how to get help — help they said was sorely needed — for their local Church.

Those concerns are a part of “the whole story.” Even three years after the McCarrick scandal began, if you think your diocese has problems, or your bishop does, where should you actually go? Who should you call? And will it matter?

On the precipice of an apostolic visitation — an investigation authorized by the Vatican — people in Knoxville told me they were talking to me about their diocese only because they didn’t yet know who else they could to talk with, or how.  

 ‘What the hell is this?’

About ten complaints were sent last month from the Knoxville diocese to the Congregation for Bishops, Vatican officials told The Pillar. They were sent through a pipeline set up after the McCarrick scandal of 2018, and meant to address bishops who engaged in sexual abuse or misconduct, or covered it up. 

The Knoxville complaints say Stika’s interference in at least one case constitutes a cover-up. Stika disagrees

But those complaints also say Stika has a pattern of inappropriate relationships with young men — not necessarily sexual, but inappropriate, and public, and a source of scandal. Some of those relationships have involved international trips, selfies posted on social media, and excessive gifts — in one case, even a car, priests said. Several priests referred to those relationships as “grooming.” 

The most recent of those relationships appeared to involve the recently dismissed seminarian, priests told me, but there were others before that, they said.

I raised those allegations to Stika. The bishop told me that he has been blessed with good friendships, which are important to him.

“I always believe God sends people into our lives at particular times,” he told me. 

He added that his friendships have been misunderstood and mischaracterized.

I raised three allegations of “grooming” to the bishop; the three I heard mentioned most often. In each case, Stika offered me explanations. He said that some priests judged him unfairly, that he acted appropriately, and that he had “nothing to hide.’

Stika said he has not had an inappropriate relationship with the recently dismissed seminarian. He said he had invited him to live in the bishop’s house so he could better evaluate him. He explained that he replaced an investigator reviewing the seminarian’s alleged misconduct because the investigator was bungling things, and because he “knew” in his heart, he said, “that [seminarian] was absolutely innocent.”

I next mentioned to Stika a former lay employee of the diocese, who had lived in a diocesan residence, and took international trips with Stika. Several priests told me the bishop appeared to be unusually and inappropriately close to the employee, for more than a year. Several recalled him, in sotto voce tones, as “the bishop’s friend.”

Dave Wells, a Knoxville Catholic who worked at the diocesan cathedral from 2013 until 2018, is among those who told me that Stika seemed to be “infatuated” with the employee. 

“I was very disturbed by that whole relationship, and there were a lot of people that were disturbed by that whole relationship. It just felt like grooming,” Wells told me.

But Stika told me that he was not infatuated with the lay employee. He said he developed a friendship with the employee, who helped him learn to work out in the gym, and got him through a lonely period — a “low time in my life.”

“He was a true friend in the gym, and he pulled me out of a health scare,” Stika said. “But there was no attraction.”

“Well, I was attracted to his intellect...and plus he was helping me in the gym,” the bishop qualified unprompted, before he explained to me in detail some moral issues the employee struggled with, and his aim to help with those.

Still, he said, “he helpe...

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