VATICAN CITY (AP) — The bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, resigned under pressure Tuesday after allegations that he mishandled allegations of sexual abuse and several of his priests complained about his leadership and behavior, prompting an investigation by the Vatican.
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Stika, according to a statement from a Vatican Hotline. At 65, Stika is still 10 years below the normal retirement age for bishops.
The Vatican did not identify a replacement in its statement, but the US conference of Catholic bishops said the Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, the Rev. Shelton Fabre, has been named temporary administrator to lead the diocese until a new bishop is installed. .
Stika’s departure, after 14 years as Bishop of Knoxville, closes a turbulent chapter for the diocese in the southern US that was marked by a notable revolt by some of its priests, who accused Stika of abusing his authority. and protect a seminarian accused of sexual misconduct. They appealed to the Vatican for «merciful relief» in 2021, citing his own mental health, prompting a Vatican investigation that led to Stika’s resignation.
In media interviews, Stika strongly defended his actions and leadership, saying he worked to bring unity in the diocese.
In a statement Tuesday, Stika cited «life-threatening health issues» as at least part of the reason for his resignation. She cited diabetes, heart problems and neuropathy, among others.
“I recognize that questions about my leadership have developed publicly in recent months. I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that some of this has weighed on me physically and emotionally. For these reasons, I asked the Holy Father to relieve me of my responsibilities as a diocesan bishop,” he said.
In addition to the allegations by priests, Stika is the subject of at least two lawsuits accusing him of mishandling allegations of sexual abuse and trying to silence accusers. In one, a former employee of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Knoxville, who uses the pseudonym John Doe, accused a seminarian of harassing and raping him in 2019.
The lawsuit filed in Knox County Chancery Court says Stika should have known the seminarian was dangerous because he had previously been accused of sexual misconduct. Instead, Stika encouraged the accuser’s friendship with the man, and the accuser felt pressure to comply for fear of losing his job, he says.
Even after the former employee accused the seminarian of rape, Stika let the seminarian live in his home and strongly defended him, the lawsuit says. Stika also told several people that the seminarian was innocent and that the accuser was the assailant, she says. In addition, Stika removed an investigator who was looking into the allegations and replaced him with another person who never spoke to the accuser, according to the lawsuit.
In a second lawsuit, a Honduran immigrant seeking asylum in the United States accused a priest from the diocese of locking her in a room and sexually assaulting her after she went to him for grief counseling in 2020. The woman went to police. and the diocese was aware of the allegation but took no action against the priest until he was indicted on sexual assault charges in 2022, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses the diocese of spreading rumors about the woman that led to her being shunned and harassed in the community.
The woman, who uses the pseudonym Jane Doe, filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese. The diocese, in turn, hired a private detective to investigate her. The detective illegally obtained her employment records and told police that she had committed employment fraud, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims the diocese was trying to intimidate her into dropping both lawsuits or having her arrested and deported.
Around the same time, a group of priests from the Diocese of Knoxville sent a letter to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio representing Pope Francis to the United States.
In the letter dated September 29, 2021, the priests asked for «merciful relief» from the «suffering we have endured in the last 12 years» under Stika.
Those years have been «harmful to the priestly fraternity and even to our personal well-being,» the letter states. He goes on to describe «priests who are seeing psychologists, taking antidepressants, considering early retirement, and even pursuing secular careers.»
The Vatican authorized an investigation of the diocese, called an «apostolic visitation,» which took place in late 2022.
In his statement, Stika said he hoped to remain in active ministry in his hometown of St. Louis and continue to live with Cardinal Justin Rigali, a retired Philadelphia archbishop with whom he has lived for the past 12 years in the same bishop’s residence. from Knoxville as the seminarian