KNOXVILLE — The leader of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee apologized Thursday to victims of sex abuse in the broader church, but said he can all but promise there are no cases of sexual abuse in Knoxville or the surrounding parishes.
"I can’t guarantee 100 percent, I can guarantee probably 99 percent," Bishop Richard Stika said. "Being a small diocese, you'd hear things, and I know the priests. If an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor comes up we would immediately deal with it."
He said the church has instituted new guidelines and background checks to try to prevent abuse.
"Just because you might feel that you have a call to the priesthood doesn’t mean you have the qualities, disposition or personality of the person," he said.
He also addressed questions raised last week by activists that Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of Philadelphia whom Stika invited to live in the Knoxville diocese.
"I consider him like my pop, my dad," said Stika, who served under Rigali in St. Louis before moving to Knoxville.
He said Rigali "inherited a mess" when he was named leader of the church in Philadelphia amid an initial grand jury report detailing sex abuse allegations against priests in the diocese.
"I remember talking to him on the phone when he was still in Philadelphia, he was just miserable, he was trying to do his best, and he had everybody shooting at him for different directions," Stika said.
Rigali retired to live and work in Knoxville at Stika's invitation after a second grand jury report in 2011 found more allegations of priest abuse.
The bishop also weighed in on the recent execution of Billy Ray Irick and upcoming executions in Tennessee.
"You just keep on killing. And at some point it has got to stop. I know some people will vehemently disagree with me, but I do believe in mercy," he said. "I actually got to see an execution chamber in Missouri, the table pulls out and it looks like a cross."
On an April immigration raid by federal agents in Morristown, Stika said he believes a country has the rights to protect its borders, but is tired of people being used as political pawns.
"When I went up there I was talking to families and all of a sudden mom and dad are gone. Or mom is gone [or] dad is gone, just boom," he said. "What kind of a long-term mark is it going to put on those kids?"
Asking "How can you not love East Tennessee," Stika said he hopes he does not move beyond the Knoxville diocese.
"Since I’ve been here, one of my mantras, one of my expressions is that we are the hands, the feet, the voice, the heart of Jesus," he said. "And if we live that authentically, people will be drawn to the faith."
The bishop, an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan, spoke at length about his favorite players and the current season, and while he told 10News he does not follow Tennessee football closely, he predicted the Vols would win against West Virginia by "two touchdowns" in their season opener Saturday.