In midst of sex assault suit, Knoxville diocese seeks to shield papers
Knoxville News Sentinel USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE
February 6, 2023–The Catholic Diocese of Knoxville is asking a judge to grant
greater secrecy as the church continues to defend itself in an explosive sexual abuse
lawsuit. The effort is in large part due to the reporting of Knox News. The Catholic
Diocese of Knoxville has asked a judge to allow it to keep secret internal documents as
it defends itself in an explosive sexual abuse lawsuit.
The diocese, citing ongoing coverage by Knox News, requested the protection of
materials related to the church’s sexual abuse review board and from “private
meetings of priests of the Diocese.” The diocese also refiled a request to protect
investigative documents related to complaints filed against Bishop Richard Stika.
The lawsuit was filed by a former church employee who says he was raped by a church
seminarian. The man says the diocese, led by Stika, interfered with the investigation
and worked to discredit him. Knox News is not naming the man because he says he
was the victim of a sexual assault.
The diocese argues it needs protection specifically because of the “continued publicity
that this litigation has garnered over the past year – most recently exhibited by the
multitude of articles published by the Knoxville News Sentinel over the past month.”
Jim Wogan, diocesan spokesperson, told Knox News in an email the diocese is only
seeking to protect “a very, very small percentage of the total materials provided” and
“would not restrict the use of the materials in litigation.”
What the church wants to protect
h Documents and communications of its sexual assault review board Review boards
were created by the Roman Catholic Church to address a flood of sexual abuse
findings in the early 2000s.
A review board advises a bishop when allegations of sexual abuse are made against
church leaders, primarily priests, and are supposed to give victims the opportunity for
validation from the church, especially in old cases protected by statute of limitation
In this case, before a lawsuit was filed, the church’s review board hired retired
Tennessee Valley Authority investigator George Prosser, an outsider who isn’t
Catholic, to investigate the claims.
Prosser was fired soon after he began, he and a former review board member told
The diocese ended up replacing Prosser with another investigator, Chris Manning,
who told the Catholic news publication, The Pillar, he interviewed only the former
employee and not the man who said he was sexually assaulted. The lawsuit relies
heavily on revelations unearthed by The Pillar, which first reported on Stika’s removal
of Prosser in May 2021.
h Documents and communications of private meetings with priests This broad request
could be seen as a cover to blanket any interactions Stika has had with priests over the
past two years, and it’s certainly a way for the church to suppress specific comments
from the bishop, who told priests that the man who said he was sexually assaulted was
a predator, according to his lawsuit.
h Documents related to ‘Vos Estis,’ and why it’s important Beginning in 2019 the
Catholic Church created a way for priests and others to make complaints about
bishops, said James Connell, a whistleblower priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
and canon lawyer.
The name of this new reporting process is “Motu Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” or
simply Vos Estis, and it was created by Pope Francis himself.
The church would like to keep these investigative reports secret and previously asked
Judge E. Jerome Melson to protect them. The judge declined the church’s request last
summer but gave it the opportunity to revisit the request.
Those documents are not supposed to be privileged or private, per church law, said
Tom Doyle, a former Jesuit priest and canon lawyer who is an expert in clerical sex
In a similar case in November, a New York State Supreme Court justice ordered the
Archdiocese of New York turn over it’s entire Vos Estis investigative file after the
lawyers argued the documents should remain secret.
It’s likely, Connell said, that the Vos Estis reports about Stika are what prompted a
visit to the diocese last fall by high-ranking church officials.
In that case, the Vos Estis investigation would have been conducted by the
Archdiocese of Louisville (which oversees the Knoxville diocese), he said. If that’s
what occurred, either Archbishop Joseph Kurtz (the former bishop of Knoxville) or
new Archbishop Shelton Fabre reported their findings to the Vatican.
It makes sense, then, Connell said, that the Vatican gave approval for the apostolic
visit that took place the last week of November. That visit is a signal church
authorities are concerned, experts told Knox News.
Simply put, Doyle said, “something had to trigger the apostolic visitation.”
A pattern of secrecy
Three months after the diocese and Stika were named in the lawsuit, leaders made the
church’s sexual abuse review board meetings much more secretive, including
requiring members to sign nondisclosure agreements and disallowing note taking.
The diocese says a more tight-lipped board better protects sexual abuse victims, but
sex abuse victim advocates say it protects abusers.
Last week the the man who said he was sexually assaulted refiled his lawsuit after a
judge sided with the church in requiring him to file the lawsuit under his legal name, a
move abuse experts said was intended to intimidate the man and anyone in the future
who considers suing over sexual abuse.
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism.
Connect with Tyler by emailing him at [email protected] Follow him
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