Embattled Tennessee bishop resigns after priest complaints, abuse lawsuits

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, resigned under pressure Tuesday over allegations that he mishandled sexual abuse allegations and several of his priests have complained about his leadership and misconduct. his behavior, triggering a Vatican investigation.

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Stika, according to a one-line statement from the Vatican. No replacement was named immediately. At 65, Stika is still 10 years below the normal retirement age for bishops.

His departure, after 14 years as bishop of Knoxville, closes a tumultuous chapter for the diocese in the southern United States which has been marked by a remarkable revolt by some of its priests, who have 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 their own sanity, prompting a Vatican investigation that led to Stika’s resignation.

In media interviews, Stika strongly defended his actions and leadership and said he was working to bring unity to the diocese.

In addition to complaints from priests, Stika faces at least two lawsuits that accuse him of mishandling sexual abuse allegations and seeking to silence accusers. In one, a former employee of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus 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 charged with 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 defended him strongly, the lawsuit says. Stika also told several people that the seminarian was innocent and the accuser was the assailant, he said. Additionally, Stika removed an investigator who was looking into the allegations, replacing him with someone who was the father of a priest and never spoke to the accuser, according to the lawsuit.

In a second lawsuit, a Honduran immigrant seeking asylum in the United States accused a diocesan priest of locking her in a room and sexually assaulting her after she went to him for case counseling. of mourning in 2020. The woman turned herself in to the police and the Diocese was aware of the accusation but took no action against the priest until he was charged with sexual assault in 2022, according to the lawsuit.

The suit accuses the diocese of spreading rumors about the woman which led to her being shunned and harassed in the community.

The woman, who uses the pseudonym Jane Doe, filed a civil suit against the diocese. The diocese, in turn, hired a private detective to investigate her. The detective illegally obtained her employment records and told police she had committed employment fraud, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the diocese was either trying to intimidate her into dropping both lawsuits or have 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 who serves as Pope Francis’ representative in the United States.

In the letter dated September 29, 2021, the priests called for “merciful relief” of “the suffering we have endured for the past 12 years” under Stika.

These years have been “damaging to the priestly brotherhood and even to our personal well-being,” the letter states. He goes on to describe “priests consulting psychologists, taking antidepressants, considering early retirement and even seeking secular careers.”

The Vatican authorized an investigation into the diocese, called an “apostolic visitation”, which took place at the end of 2022.

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