Embattled Tennessee bishop resigns after priest complaints, abuse-related lawsuits, Texas "Conservative Firebrand" Priest faces rare Vatican process


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VATICAN CITY (AP) — The bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, resigned under pressure Tuesday following allegations he mishandled sex abuse allegations and several of his priests complained about his leadership and behavior, sparking a Vatican investigation.

Pope Francis accepted Bishop Richard Stika’s resignation, according to a one-line statement from the Vatican. At 65, Stika is still 10 years below the normal retirement age for bishops.

The Vatican didn't identify a replacement in its statement, but the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops said the archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, the Most Reverend Shelton Fabre, was named temporary administrator to run the diocese until a new bishop is installed.

Stika's departure, after 14 years as bishop of Knoxville, closes a turbulent chapter for the southern U.S. diocese that was marked by a remarkable revolt by some of its priests, who accused Stika of abusing his authority and protecting a seminarian accused of sexual misconduct. They appealed to the Vatican for “merciful relief” in 2021, citing their own mental health, sparking a Vatican investigation that led to Stika’s resignation.

In media interviews, Stika has strongly defended his actions and his leadership and said he worked to bring unity in the diocese.

In a statement Tuesday, Stika cited “life-threatening health issues” as part of the reason for his resignation. He listed diabetes, heart problems and neuropathy, among other issues, though he also said the public airing of problems in the diocese had affected him.

“I recognize that questions about my leadership have played out 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 for relief from my responsibilities as a diocesan bishop,” he said.

In addition to the priests’ complaints, Stika is the subject of at least two lawsuits that accuse him of mishandling sexual abuse allegations and seeking to silence the accusers. In one, a former employee at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville — who uses the pseudonym John Doe — accused a seminarian there of harassing and raping him in 2019.

The suit filed in Chancery Court in Knox County says Stika should have known the seminarian was dangerous because he had been accused of sexual misconduct previously. Instead, Stika encouraged the accuser's friendship with the man, and the accuser felt pressure to comply for fear of losing his job, it says.

Even after the former employee accused the seminarian of rape, Stika let the seminarian live in his home and steadfastly defended him, the suit says. Stika also told multiple people that the seminarian was innocent and that the accuser was the aggressor, it says. In addition, Stika removed an investigator who was looking into the allegations, replacing him with someone else who never talked to the accuser, according to the lawsuit.

In a second lawsuit, a Honduran immigrant seeking asylum in the United States accused a priest in 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 the police, and the diocese was aware of the accusation but took no action against the priest until after he was indicted on sexual battery charges in 2022, according to the lawsuit.

The suit 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 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 that she had committed employment fraud, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims the diocese was trying to either intimidate her into dropping both lawsuits or get 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 a representative for Pope Francis in the United States.

In the letter dated Sept. 29, 2021, the priests appealed for “merciful relief” from “the suffering we’ve endured these past 12 years” under Stika.

Those years have been “detrimental to priestly fraternity and even to our personal well-being,” the letter states. It goes on to describe “priests who are seeing psychologists, taking anti-depressants, considering early retirement, and even looking for secular careers.”

The Vatican authorized an investigation of the diocese, called an “apostolic visitation,” that 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 living with Cardinal Justin Rigali, a retired archbishop of Philadelphia with whom he has lived for the past 12 years in the same Knoxville bishop's residence as the seminarian.

His temporary replacement, Fabre, tweeted the announcement of Stika's resignation and asked for prayers for himself and the people of East Tennessee “during this time of transition.” ___


Vatican launches investigation into Diocese of Tyler’s Bishop Strickland​

TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - According to reports from various Catholic news outlets, the Vatican has launched an investigation into Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler.

According to The Pillar, the Vatican Dicastery for Bishops has undertaken an apostolic visitation to the Diocese of Tyler, Texas.

The Pillar says, an apostolic visitation is “an official review of diocesan leadership and governance, usually convened at the behest of a Vatican congregation.”

According to the National Catholic Reporter, the investigation into the Diocese of Tyler was originally reported on the Catholic outlet Church Militant.

The National Catholic Reporter says they reached out to the diocese and on June 26 Elizabeth Slaten, the communications director for the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, told them that the investigation occurred over “a series of days” the previous week, but she declined to comment further on who conducted the visitation or its purpose.

According to NCR Slaten said, “The whole process was very confidential, the whole thing was conducted by the Holy See. We respect their processes. I’m not free to speak on behalf of Mother Church and the nuncio.”

Strickland has a sizeable social media presence, NCR reports Strickland as having “nearly 124,000 followers on Twitter, slightly more than the total number of Catholics in his diocese.” It’s this platform, and the messages Strickland spreads with it, that have some speculating on the investigation’s true purpose.

According to The Pillar, Strickland has made waves with his opinions on vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic, and tweeting about his negative opinions of Pope Francis.

NCR reports that in a May tweet, Strickland wrote, “I believe Pope Francis is the Pope but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith. Follow Jesus.”

Additionally The Pillar reports that on June 16 Strickland led a prayer rally at L.A. Dodger Stadium in protest of the Dodger’s recognition of an LGBTQ+ group.

According to The Pillar, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference had distanced themselves from the rally.

In regards to how the Diocese of Tyler reacted to the investigation, The Pillar reports that they spoke with sources close to Strickland about the investigation.

The Pillar says their source is a priest who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

The Pillar reports their source said “It was not even primarily about his ‘rants’ about Pope Francis. The questions really focused on years of governance issues, which have had us priests concerned. We had two finance officers removed before their five-year-terms were expired, and that’s not typical at all.”

The Pillar reports another source close to Strickland tells them that the Bishop is confident about the visit. “The bishop doesn’t want to make too big of a deal of it,” The Pillar’s source said.

But The Pillar also says they interviewed a priest who was questioned during the visitation and the priest said that interviewers “were already asking questions about who might be a good fit to replace [Strickland].”

On June 25, around 6:45 a.m. Bishop Strickland tweeted the following, “To be persecuted for speaking truth is an honor every Christian should be willing to embrace. It is walking with Jesus Christ who is Truth Incarnate. If we know Jesus it is easier to speak His Truth no matter what forces oppose us. The opposition is temporary, Jesus is forever.”

There is currently no word on when an official report with Dicastery for Bishops will be filed or when the dicastery will reach a decision about the visitation.