(OSV News) — Pope Francis plans to ask Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, to resign in response to a Vatican-ordered investigation of sexual abuse cover-up and financial mismanagement, according to a report by The Pillar.
In a May 13 article, The Pillar cited unnamed sources “close to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops,” who indicated that Pope Francis came to a decision on the embattled Tennessee bishop in April.
Bishop’s tenure has been a ‘troubled one’
Appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, Bishop Stika has been the diocese’s longest-serving ordinary, but his tenure has been a troubled one.
The bishop has been accused of sheltering and financing former seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk, who allegedly raped a parish organist. In May 2021, Bishop Stika confirmed to The Pillar he had removed an investigator appointed to the case by the diocesan review board, saying the former law enforcement professional was “past his prime” and declaring Sobczuk’s innocence. The organist has since filed a lawsuit against Bishop Stika and the diocese.
The bishop allegedly used diocesan funds to cover Sobczuk’s tuition at St. Louis University, where the former seminarian enrolled following his dismissal from the seminary, according to a Knoxville News-Sentinel article cited by The Pillar.
A separate lawsuit filed in April 2022 accuses Bishop Stika of failing to discipline Father Antony Punnackal, a Carmelite of Mary Immaculate, who was arrested in January 2022 for sexually assaulting a grieving parishioner who had sought spiritual counseling two years earlier.
Along with claims of mishandling abuse investigations, the bishop has been dogged by multiple complaints of financial mismanagement, particularly with regard to the building of Knoxville’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
Priests appeal for ‘merciful relief’ from Bishop Stika’s leadership
According to The Pillar, 11 Knoxville diocesan priests appealed in September 2021 to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., for “merciful relief” from Bishop Stika’s leadership, which they claimed had been “detrimental to priestly fraternity and even to (their) personal well-being.”
In November 2021, Virginia Bishops Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond led a Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation of the Knoxville Diocese to review concerns over Bishop Stika’s administration, said The Pillar. No results from that effort have yet been released.
In a Feb. 1 “state of the diocese” report published by East Tennessee Catholic, the Knoxville diocesan newspaper, Bishop Stika pointed to the diocese’s spiritual and financial growth, while acknowledging that the abuse-related civil lawsuits “on a number of levels have been difficult.”
The bishop said that while he “respected” media interest in the cases, the claims “are accusations,” and that he would “answer relevant questions in the proper way, under oath, and at the proper time, in a court of law, if it comes to that.”
He also said it had been “difficult to endure some of the one-sidedness of the reporting” on the lawsuits, even stating that “there are some details being reported, based on allegations, that are just flat-out incorrect.”
In response to an OSV News’ request for comment, Jim Wogan, director of communications for the Knoxville Diocese, said the diocese was “aware of the article” by The Pillar, but that “there (was) really nothing for (the diocese) to comment on.”
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Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina