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The Sad Case of Knoxville’s Catholic Bishop, Rick Stika

It’s getting complicated:

I went to Knoxville at Bishop Stika’s invitation. The Pillar reported last month that the Congregation for Bishops in Rome had received complaints about Stika’s leadership in the Knoxville diocese, and was considering initiating an apostolic visitation, or investigation, in the diocese.

The complaints, which came from both priests and laity in the diocese, focused on an investigation into sexual misconduct on the part of a diocesan seminarian. Priests alleged the bishop had an unusually close relationship to the seminarian, and had interfered with the investigation.

For me, this is more than passing interest: it was in this diocese (actually it was in the Nashville diocese at the time, the Knoxville diocese is fairly new) that I met my Waterloo with Roman Catholicism, and still have close friends there.  I’ll make a few quotes from the excellent Pillar article and a few comments:

Several priests said they are concerned that a Vatican investigation won’t look seriously at the constellation of issues the diocese is facing, or the crisis of leadership they perceive. Several expressed concern that Cardinal Rigali, who has sometimes referred to Stika as a “son,” would use influence in Rome to protect the bishop. Many expressed skepticism that, without public accountability, the Church’s process for justice would actually work for them.

Some lay people told me the same thing. But others said something much simpler: With a diocese they believed to be in crisis, they just had no idea where to go. Or with whom to speak. Or how to get help — help they said was sorely needed — for their local Church.

This is a key issue for Ultramontane Roman Catholicism in general.  When bad things happen, there are few places to turn because the famous Catholic penchant for subsidarity isn’t reflected in their own structure.  The result is that bishops and parish priests can become “little Caesars” with limited accountability to those whom they’re supposedly serving–the people of God.

“What was sold was a $25 million cathedral and a $25 million campaign, and it was going to be paid for. Well, we all knew those were fantasy numbers to begin with. But nobody asked the right question,” one priest in a senior leadership position in the diocese told me.

“If you asked how much the cathedral cost — well, the cathedral cost between $35 and $36 million. I don’t doubt that. What did the project cost? Well, because they had to buy property, they had to do site work, none of that was in the initial proposal. So the bottom line is the project is a $42 million project.”

“The diocese only approved $25 million, but you ended up with a $42 million cathedral, which basically leaves you with $17 million to fund in a diocese. I mean we are not a rich diocese.”

East Tennessee in general isn’t a wealthy part of the country, although traditionally Roman Catholicism has had an above average income demographic in this area.  But the gross overrun and inadequate planning reminds me of my own church’s disaster with its denominational office expansion.  The big difference from a numbers standpoint is that Stika’s project was larger by a factor of five than ours.  My guess is that he was trying to make a statement, but all he’s shown that, like my own church, he has champagne taste and beer pocketbook, and is no better a manager of funds than his non-Catholic counterparts.  But anyone who has followed the Vatican’s own financial scandals over the years, complete with dead bodies, knows that.

Marcy Meldahl was the director of human resources, employment services, and benefits in the Knoxville diocese from 2004 until 2014…

Meldahl claimed: “The bishop said to trustees of that scholarship fund: ‘I’m going to take that money, put in an IOU, and that IOU will pay you greater interest than what you’re getting now.’ Well, the IOU is only good if there’s going to be money to pay it back.”

“And that’s the money that’s given to help pay tuition,” she said, “for people who can’t pay for Catholic education. And it’s given for that reason.”

This is the issue that was the beginning of the end for me with Roman Catholicism, as I explain in this 2007 post:

Back in the early 1980’s, I was involved in a Catholic Charismatic prayer group.  We were under a great deal of pressure, some of which was of our own making and some of which came from a Church which didn’t really care much for what we were doing.  It was also the days of “if you want peace, work for justice,” the nuclear freeze, and other left-wing emphases which tended to deflect hierarchy and faithful alike from their relationship with God.

A major turning point for me took place on day when, while discussing things with one of our prayer group leaders, she mentioned that, because of the high tuition, she could not afford to send her eight children to Catholic school.  So they went to public school.

That revelation was the beginning of the end of me as a Roman Catholic.  I concluded that any church that was too bourgeois and self-satisfied not to subsidise its own needful children to attend the schools it wanted them to attend was too bourgeois to be an advocate for social justice.  So I took my leave on a course that’s best encapsulated in The Preferential Option of the Poor.

Instead of being a refuge from Blaine Amendment type anti-Catholicism in public schools, Catholic schools around here have turned themselves into private schools for those wealthy enough to send their children there.  Some dioceses actually step up to the plate and fix this problem, but Knoxville, because of the cathedral, is in no position to do so now, even if it wanted to on a large scale.

I hope that Stika’s difficulties can find a happy resolution, both for himself and especially for his diocese.  But with Catholicism’s murky Ultramontane politics, I’m not holding my breath.


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