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Lawsuit alleges seminarian raped church employee and Knoxville’s bishop covered it up

The church said it is aware of the lawsuit and “looks forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend itself.”

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A civil lawsuit filed in Knox County Circuit Court Tuesday alleges a Knoxville seminarian raped a church musician, who then faced intimidation by Bishop Richard Stika into staying silent about the assault.

The musician, who was named as a John Doe in the suit, said a Polish priest-in-training came to his house after celebrating mass one evening in early February 2019. He tried to kiss Doe, performed unwanted oral sex on him and then raped him, the lawsuit said.

Weeks later, on Valentine’s day, Doe said the seminarian wrote him a card that said, in part, “Thank you for everything. And for what was wrong – I apologize with all my heart.” A photo of the card is attached to the lawsuit.

Doe said he contacted the Knoxville Police Department in late February 2019, but did not file a report because he feared he would lose his job at the church. KPD confirmed last June that it did not have any reports under the seminarian’s name.

In a statement, a Diocese of Knoxville spokesperson said Stika was notified of the lawsuit Tuesday evening and said, "The diocese understands that the legal system works at a very deliberate pace, and with good reason."

“The diocese expects the process to be fair and thorough and looks forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend itself if this matter moves forward,” the spokesperson said. 

Credit: WBIR
The lawsuit claims the priest-in-training wrote this note to the musician in the days after the alleged rape.

Two days after the alleged rape, Doe said Stika gave him an expensive prayer book with an inscription – despite Doe having “never had a substantive conversation with Stika.” The following month, the seminarian invited Doe to dinner with Stika, who told Doe “it would probably be best if [he] and Doe communicated through Snapchat,” according to the lawsuit.

In a May 2021 interview, Stika told a Catholic publication he intervened in a diocese investigation into the alleged misconduct because he did not believe the experienced investigator was up to the task and said he was convinced of the seminarian’s innocence.  

The lawsuit said Doe was never contacted by a church investigator.

WBIR is not naming the priest-in-training because he has not been charged criminally. More information about the case can be found in the public complaint, attached below.

The seminarian and the musician 

The lawsuit alleged the priest-in-training first connected with the musician after he performed at a children’s mass at the newly-completed Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in January 2019.

They met the following day at the chancery, adjacent to the cathedral and made plans to attend a dinner and a concert that evening, the lawsuit said. Over drinks that night, the seminarian told Doe he was gay but to keep it a secret “otherwise he would be kicked out of the church,” the lawsuit said.

Doe felt bad for the priest-in-training, the lawsuit said, and began spending more and more time with him. On several occasions, the filing said, Doe resisted some of the seminarian’s sexual advances toward him. He was “pressured into brief sexual touching and oral sex on isolated occasions,” the lawsuit said.

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“Doe continued to associate with [the seminarian] because he felt bad for him as a gay seminarian, believed [he] could be telling the truth in attributing his aggressive sexual behavior to his inexperience,” the lawsuit said.

On the night of the alleged rape, the lawsuit said Doe tried to leave the room, but the seminarian blocked his way. Afterward, “in shock and in pain, Doe laid down to bed. [The seminarian] lied down next to him in the bed and insisted on sleeping there that night,” the lawsuit said.

Doe demanded he leave in the morning.

"It has hurt him in ways that can’t even really be comprehended unless you’ve gone through something like that before. It’s affected every area of his life," Doe's lawyer Patrick Thronson told 10News. 

Doe tried to avoid the seminarian as much as possible, the suit said, but continued to spend time with him – partially at the behest of Bishop Stika. He quit his job at the diocese in August 2019, the lawsuit said. 

Credit: WBIR
Bishop Richard Stika

“This was an effort at intimidation”

Days after the alleged rape, the seminarian left a prayer book described in the lawsuit as “an expensive missal” to Doe. Inside, Bishop Stika had handwritten an inscription reading “stay always close to God!”

Credit: Knox Co. Circuit Court/Patrick Thronson
An inscription inside a Catholic prayer book the lawsuit alleges Bishop Stika gifted John Doe in the days after the reported assault.

“The implication he felt from receiving the missal from someone who was ultimately his boss, but whom he hadn't had a subsequent conversation with, was that this was an effort at intimidation,” Patrick Thronson said. “The message ‘Stay always close to God’ really meant ‘Don't cross me or the diocese.’”

The lawsuit said the gift frightened Doe. A month later, Stika, Doe and the seminarian went to dinner together, the lawsuit said. “Stika told Doe that he was very happy that [they] were friends.”

The lawsuit alleges Stika “scuttled an investigation into the incident” by firing the church’s investigator and conducting an investigation on his own. It also alleges Stika defamed Doe by claiming Doe raped the seminarian, not the other way around.

"This lawsuit is about forcing the diocese and Bishop Stika to take responsibility," Thronson said. 

The suit, filed in Knox County Circuit Court, seeks undisclosed damages. A diocesan spokesperson did not reply when asked whether the seminarian still works at the local church. Thronson said he is unclear about his whereabouts.

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