What we know about the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville investigations and lawsuits
In the last year, the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville has been hit with two lawsuits alleging improper investigations into sexual assault complaints. These lawsuits cracked open the inner workings of the diocese.
In the course of reporting on the lawsuits, Knox News has published a number of articles detailing different aspects of how the diocese has, and has not, held itself accountable.
Here is a look at the findings of Knox News’ investigation.
Original John Doe lawsuit story
John Doe was a placeholder name in the lawsuit to protect the identity of a former church employee who alleged a diocesan seminarian raped him. He has since been forced to refile his lawsuit under his legal name but Knox News is not naming him as he alleges he was a victim of a sexual assault.
The lawsuit also details how the church, led by Bishop Richard Stika, interfered with the investigation and worked to discredit him.
Original Jane Doe lawsuit story
Jane Doe is a placeholder name in a lawsuit to protect the identity of the woman, a Honduran asylum seeker living in Gatlinburg who alleges the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal, of St. Mary's Catholic Church, groped her while he counseled her after the death of the father of her infant.
The woman alleges the diocese worked to discredit and intimidate her. Punnackal was later indicted by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery.
Knoxville priests wrote scathing letter about Bishop Stika as last resort in 2021
In 2021, 11 priests sent a letter to the highest reaches of the U.S. Catholic Church regarding the leadership of Bishop Richard Stika.
Priests are known to speak mostly behind closed doors about church issues. This group, however, felt Stika was not responding to their requests and complaints. They felt they had no other recourse.
Their concerns were twofold.
Stika, they said, had continually downplayed the allegations of rape against the former church seminarian, among other issues. Separately, they listed a number of interactions with the bishop that were inappropriate, like when, during the exhumation of the remains of a priest with an open cause for sainthood, he made repeated remarks about pubic hairs of the priest.
Priests had to sign NDAs to talk to bishops during diocese investigation
If they wanted to speak truth to power during a fact-finding visit by high-ranking church officials, priests and laypeople in the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville were required to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The nondisclosure requirement was confirmed by three people with direct knowledge of the discussions. Knox News is not naming them because they were not given authority to speak about the proceedings and could face retaliation if identified.
Experts in church law told Knox News its not typical to require people to sign nondisclosure agreements to speak to high-ranking clergy, and the move is not supported by church law.
In homily on sin, priest makes false claim about Knox News reporting
In a Feb. 12 homily on sin, a high-ranking clergyman of the Knoxville Catholic diocese condemned Knox News for its ongoing reporting on two separate sexual assault complaints against the church and the diocese’s efforts to obstruct the investigations and intimidate the alleged victims.
The Rev. David Boettner said media usually assigns sportswriters to cover the church and that media is wrong 99% of the time.
He also told parishioners should not trust Knox News because it would not accurately report the definition of sin.Knox News' recent reporting on the diocese's handling of sex assault allegations has been conducted by investigative reporter Tyler Whetstone. Knox News editor Joel Christopher said he has never assigned a sports reporter to cover the church, nor has he ever heard of another newsroom doing so.
Knoxville diocese asks judge to keep documents secret, cites Knox News reporting
The diocese, citing ongoing coverage by Knox News, asked a judge to allow it to keep secret some of its materials related to the church’s sexual abuse review board and from “private meetings of priests of the Diocese.” The diocese also refiled a request to protect investigative documents related to complaints filed against Bishop Richard Stika.
New filing claims Bishop Stika said John Doe was 'predator'
Stika told a roomful of priests in 2021 that John Doe had the whole story backward. In Stika's account, the man is a predator who sexually abused the seminarian, according to new details included in a lawsuit by the alleged victim. The lawsuit also claims Stika told another group of priests that John Doe groomed the seminarian for sexual abuse.
The allegations came in a new filing required by a Knox County judge who agreed with the diocese and required John Doe to refile under his legal name.
Knoxville diocese argued John Doe should be named
In an unusual move, the diocese won a legal effort to force John Doe to use his legal name instead of a pseudonym if he wants to continue his lawsuit against the church.
The diocese's push to name the victim alarmed clergy sex abuse advocates across the country. Several told Knox News the maneuver is meant to intimidate the man and scare off those who consider reporting a sexual assault in the future.
He will be refiling soon, according to his attorney.
Sources: High-ranking Catholic authorities scrutinize Knoxville bishop
As the two lawsuits swirled around the diocese, officials received an apostolic visit late last year. These visits are typically ordered by church authorities to dig into the spiritual well-being of a diocese.
Apostolic visitations often are a signal that church leaders are concerned about a matter and gives them a chance to speak directly with people involved.
Sources: Bishop Stika interfered with the church’s investigation
Two people who played key roles in a review by the diocese into whether a seminarian raped a diocesan employee in 2019 told Knox News that Stika interfered by firing the investigator, independently confirming allegations that are detailed in a lawsuit by the man who says he was sexually assaulted.
The man who replaced the investigator reportedly only interviewed the former employee and not the alleged victim.
Review Board becomes more secretive
Three months after the diocese and Stika were named in the explosive sexual abuse lawsuit, leaders made the church’s sexual abuse review board meetings much more secretive, including requiring members to sign nondisclosure agreements and disallowing note taking.
Knoxville diocese used top priest to take sex abuse complaints, not therapist
For roughly 10 months after the death of the diocese’s longtime victim assistance coordinator, the diocese leaders replaced the person with a top church official, not a licensed therapist. In December, the diocese and local nonprofit, the McNabb Center, entered into a contract to provide third-party reporting services.
A spokesperson for the church said no complaints were made in the interim.
The lawyer for the diocese held conflicting roles
Going against the norms of the Catholic Church, Stika was listed as a member of the review board that investigates allegations of sexual misconduct, a move the diocese called an oversight.
What’s more, the diocese’s lawyer also is a member of the review board, meaning the same person is simultaneously defending the diocese and conducting what's supposed to be an independent investigation into the allegation.
A spokesperson for the diocese has said he is “confident that no conflicts exist under the facts of the case.”
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. Make our community, our society and our republic stronger by supporting robust local journalism. Subscribe online at knoxnews.com/subscribe.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Diocese of Knoxville: What to know about investigations and lawsuits