Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., the Vatican announced on Tuesday.
The resignation of Bishop Richard F. Stika comes after two years of turmoil in the small diocese in East Tennessee, where the bishop has been sued for his handling of sexual misconduct allegations, and faced internal criticism of his leadership more broadly.
Priests in the diocese also made unusually direct complaints about him and asked a Vatican representative last year for “merciful relief” from his leadership. The upheaval culminated in a Vatican investigation last year, according to the Catholic publication The Pillar.
A lawsuit filed in 2022 accused him of trying to obstruct a diocesan investigation into a seminary student accused of raping and harassing a church musician in 2019. The suit said that Bishop Stika fired an investigator appointed by the diocese to look into the case, and that the bishop defamed and tried to intimidate the musician. He has said that he never covered up sexual abuse.
Another suit filed in federal court in 2022 accuses the diocese of misleading the police and otherwise obstructing an investigation into a woman’s accusation that a priest in the diocese assaulted her.
In an interview on Tuesday morning, Bishop Stika, 65, broadly disputed complaints about his leadership and said that he had requested retirement purely for health reasons. He has been diabetic for decades, and has experienced a heart attack, heart bypass surgery and a diabetic coma that resulted in vision loss in one eye.
“My body is just breaking down,” he said. “I love the diocese, but at some point you have to acknowledge the fact that health starts to deteriorate and has an effect on everything else.”
Bishop Stika declined to comment on whether he was the subject of an investigation by the Vatican. He said he requested retirement several months ago and received approval from the Vatican last week.
“I’ve heard there have been investigations but I don’t comment on things I’ve heard hearsay about,” he said.
He defended his leadership of the diocese, citing the opening of new parishes, the ordinations of new priests and stable finances.
“There’s always people who will disagree or agree with decisions that you make, but the diocese is doing very well,” he said.
Bishop Stika has led the small diocese since 2009, when he was appointed to the role by Pope Benedict XVI.
The Pillar reported that in 2021, 11 priests in the diocese made an unusual complaint to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s representative to the United States, asking for “merciful relief” from Bishop Stika’s leadership, citing accusations of dishonesty, intimidation and misuse of power.
“It seems to us that ours is a depressed presbyterate, and has been developing as such for 12 years, due to the leadership of Bishop Stika,” they wrote, saying that the consequences included their own mental health struggles.
Earlier this week, the diocese of Tyler, Texas, confirmed that the Vatican had also opened an investigation there. Catholic officials did not offer an explanation of what prompted the investigation. Such investigations, known as apostolic visitations, are rare, formal examinations of leadership that can be prompted by a wide range of possible offenses, including theological disagreements and financial mismanagement.
The Tyler diocese is headed by Bishop Joseph Strickland, a combative conservative firebrand who is critical of Pope Francis and known for weighing in on culture-war disputes across the country.
The New York Times