NEW YORK – After the Vatican announced Tuesday that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, Stika attributed his early departure to years of life-threatening health scares, and, in part, to the physical and emotional weight of controversies surrounding his leadership.
Stika, 65, had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis on June 27 about nine years before his 75th birthday, when bishops customarily submit their resignation (he turns 66 on July 4). Stika had led the diocese since 2009, when he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI.
His exit comes after a tumultuous few years filled with allegations and two lawsuits that he mishandled sex abuse allegations on multiple occasions, along with several diocesan priest complaints about his leadership, all of which led to an Apostolic Visitation late last year.
Several Knoxville priests had accused Stika of abuses of authority and appealed to the Vatican for “merciful relief” in 2021, citing concerns for their own mental health.
Whether or not the result of the Apostolic Visitation was to put pressure on Stika to submit an early resignation isn’t certain, and, in keeping with standard practice, the Vatican statement Tuesday did not provide an explanation.
Stika maintains he asked Pope Francis to grant him an early departure.
“I recently sent a letter to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, asking him to grant my petition to retire as the bishop of this great diocese,” Stika said in a June 27 statement following the announcement that his resignation was accepted. “I am grateful that he has accepted this request.”
Stika said the reason for his decision are life-threatening health issues he has dealt with for most of his adult life, including Type-1 diabetes and a diabetic coma that resulted in the loss of vision in one eye, a heart attack, heart bypass surgery and neuropathy. He also said he was hospitalized with an undisclosed health issue last month.
Stika added, however, that the controversies surrounding his tenure were another factor.
“I recognize 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,” Stika said. “For these reasons I asked the Holy Father for relief from my responsibilities as a diocesan bishop.”
In the statement, Stika didn’t acknowledge any of the controversies directly, but offered a “genuine and heartfelt apology to anyone [he has] disappointed over the years.”
In light of Stika’s retirement, Archbishop Shelten Fabre of Louisville will serve as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville until the appointment and ordination of a new bishop, according to a news release from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Diocese of Knoxville comprises 14,242 square miles in Tennessee and has a total population of 2,509,421, of which 68,075 are Catholic. Fabre said in a statement that he asks the people of the diocese to “pray for an openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit during this time of transition.”
Going forward, Stika said he wants to remain in active ministry, “but at a slower pace.”
He said he would like to do so near his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, where he was ordained a priest in 1985. He also said he would like to continue to share living space with Cardinal Justin Rigali, with whom he has lived in Knoxville for 12 years and under whom he previously served when Rigali was Archbishop of St. Louis.
Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis did not respond to a Crux request for comment on whether such as arrangement would be possible.
In parting, Stika asked for prayers.
“I have tremendous respect for everyone, even my detractors,” Stika said. “I ask that you pray for Archbishop Fabre as he oversees this diocese in the short term, and for your new bishop when he is selected. Finally, I humbly ask that you please pray for me.”
The advocacy group BishopAccountability.org called on the Vatican to issue a public explanation for Stika’s removal in a Tuesday statement.
“For the sake of the victims hurt by Stika, we urge Francis to condemn the bishop’s appalling, repeated abuse of his authority and tell us what the papal investigators found out,” the group said.
“The pope owes this accounting not only to the faithful of Knoxville, but to the innocent priests who suffered under Stika’s bizarre leadership and the victims terrorized by his cruelty,” its statement said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg