Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]
March 2, 2023
By Tyler Whetstone
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- In 2021 11 priests sent a letter to the highest reaches of the U.S. Catholic Church regarding the leadership of Bishop Richard Stika.
- “We do not wish, in hindsight, to be accused on remaining silent, or of not having done enough in the interests of justice and charity,” they wrote.
- Priests are known to speak mostly behind closed doors about church issues. This group, however, felt Stika was not responding to their requests and complaints. They felt they had no other recourse.
Long before the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville received an investigative visit from high-ranking church leaders, a group of priests sent a blistering letter about Bishop Richard Stika’s leadership to the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church in America, Knox News has learned.
The priests have not received a response from the Apostolic Nuncio in the nearly year and a half since they sent it. It is unclear if the letter precipitated the apostolic visit last fall.
The Pillar, a news organization that covers the Catholic Church, previously reported the letter had been sent, but did not get into specifics of all the complaints.
What does the letter allege?
The letter poses questions to Pierre, some theological, but all deal with different aspects of working with Stika.
There are a number of references to the former seminarian accused of raping a church employee. The alleged victim, John Doe, has since filed a lawsuit against the diocese and Stika. Knox News is not naming the victim because he says he is a victim of a sex crime. The church successfully petitioned the court to obtain a judge’s order forcing the man to attach his name to the lawsuit.
References to the seminarian’s case in the priests’ letter include the following allegations:
- The bishop repeatedly said the former seminarian who was expelled from St. Meinrad School of Theology will be readmitted in two years.
- The bishop said on a few occasions that he has spoken to the apostolic nuncio, who told him not to worry about reports from the priests to (then-)Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, since there are “only two disgruntled priests who complained,” and that Kurtz and the apostolic nuncio had determined that the reports were without merit.
- The bishop said on a few occasions, in public and in private, that the apostolic nuncio assured him there would be no investigation into his handling of the seminarian in question.
Then there are other instances, the priests allege, when Stika behaved inappropriately.
- The letter alleges the bishop and the seminarian traveled together in the summer of 2021, evidenced by a video posted on Facebook.
- The bishop lifted the soutane (robe) of a priest as both were standing in a public place to determine whether the priest was wearing undergarments.
- During the exhumation of the remains of a priest with an open cause for sainthood, the bishop made repeated remarks about the clearly evident pubic hairs of the departed priest, remarks “which are now widely known among the faithful, and which, sadly, will now be popularly associated with the cause of this priest for years to come.”
- The bishop mentioned, in the presence of women, that a priest’s facemask reminded him of a woman’s bra. Stika then asked the priest about the mask’s “cup” size.
“Taken in isolation, they are easily dismissed, and even quite comical,” they wrote. “But as indicators of what we’ve endured for twelve years under Bishop Stika’s leadership, they weigh heavily upon us.”
Much of the rest of the three-page document deals with internal church issues, many dealing with how the priests have lost trust in Stika’s leadership and his “problematic tendencies of a bishop which compromise the mission of the local Church.”
They write that Stika has shown a lack of sympathy and a lack of charity toward the priests.
Stika, through diocese spokesperson Jim Wogan, declined to comment or answer a list of questions from Knox News for this report.
How was the letter written?
Quietly over a period of weeks in 2021, 12 priests from across the diocese began discussing concerns they felt were not being properly addressed by Stika. This led to an in-person meeting at which the 12 priests discussed a framework for the letter, two of the priests told Knox News.
Volunteers from that group of priests took charge of writing the document, which was sent among the 12. All but one signed it electronically. A signed copy was sent to the Apostolic Nuncio office. The signed file was then destroyed.
The process wasn’t something they entered into lightly, one priest told Knox News.
“You don’t just automatically jump to the next level (of complaint). A lot of people do even in our local churches … they go to the pastor without going to the person,” they said. “But we felt like we went through all of the appropriate Christian-inspired and -led processes in order to reconcile and receive just responses to our legitimate concerns.”
What effect has the letter had?
The letter was separate from other formal complaints made against Stika because it mentions other complaints that had been written previously, specifically “Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” or simply Vos Estis, a process used by clergy and others to report allegations against bishops.
The church recently asked the judge overseeing the lawsuit by the former church employee to keep any Vos Estis documentation protected under seal.
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone.