Following months of speculation and a Vatican investigation, Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville. The prelate faced allegations of sex abuse cover-ups and a related improper relationship with a seminarian, as well as recent complaints to the Holy See from the priests of his diocese.
His metropolitan, Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, will act as apostolic administrator until a successor is announced in Tennessee, per a statement released Tuesday morning by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The 65-year-old Stika was not due for mandatory age-based retirement until 2032, but has for years been embroiled in controversy related to mismanagement in Knoxville. Appointed in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, the St. Louis-born prelate has been accused of various improprieties throughout his tenure in Tennessee, including the mishandling of funds to construct a new cathedral in 2014.
In recent years, Stika has been connected to various cases of sexual abuse by priests in his diocese, one of which he is said to have interfered with by “bullying” the alleged victim in 2017, according to a bombshell report in The Pillar.
The same year, Stika moved to ordain as a priest a transitional deacon who had been dismissed from formation in another diocese due to sexual misconduct allegations. The home bishop of the seminarian eventually blocked Stika from proceeding.
A similar case took place in 2019, when Stika began acting as protector for a Polish seminarian studying for the Diocese of Knoxville, Wojciech Sobczuk, who was known to have harassed and raped an organist that year at the new cathedral. Both the diocese and Stika were sued by the victim in 2021, after which it was revealed that Sobczuk had been dismissed from the Jesuits for sexual misconduct years prior in Michigan.
As in the 2017 allegation, Stika was accused of having intimidated Sobczuk’s victim in Knoxville, and later harboring the seminarian at his bishops’ residence in Knoxville after he was again dismissed from a seminary for misconduct—this time in Indiana. The prelate also dismissed a diocesan-appointed investigator of Sobczuk based on spurious claims of prying, before a replacement conducted what advocates have characterized as a sham review, effectively exonerating Sobczuk.
By April 2021, the Vatican announced that Stika would be investigated for nearly a dozen complaints concerning sex abuse mishandling. The same year, roughly a fifth of the diocese’s priests wrote to the U.S. apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre requesting “merciful relief” from Stika’s leadership—effectively calling for his replacement.
Following the conclusion of the investigation, The Pillar reported in May of this year that the Vatican would indeed request Stika’s resignation, which was tendered soon thereafter.
This week’s announcement from the Vatican, sparse in its content and not mentioning Archbishop Fabre by name, marks something of an end to strife in East Tennessee—where echoes of U.S. Catholic yesteryear have prompted comparisons to Boston, Los Angeles, and various other larger dioceses where bishops were known to have directly mishandled sex abuse allegations in recent decades.
Fabre, who in 2022 became the first Black Catholic bishop in Kentucky history, posted on social media Tuesday morning asking for the intercession of the faithful as he takes over administration of the troubled churches of Knoxville, which serve roughly 63,000 Catholics.
“Please pray for me, and for the People of God in East Tennessee, during this time of transition,” he wrote.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.