In late October, two Chattanooga-area Catholics, Theresa Critchfield and Kristy Higgins, drove with their children to a protest outside the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville.
The protest was held by SNAP of Tennessee, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Its principal organizer, Susan Vance, has for two decades agitated, often alone, for more transparency from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville.
In February, after an anonymous plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the diocese claiming Knoxville Bishop Richard Stika had impeded an investigation into a sexual assault allegedly committed by a then-diocese employee, Vance called for the bishop to resign. This, roughly eight months later, remained her cause at this small gathering in Knoxville.
Critchfield and Higgins were new to this style of protest. They'd only recently connected with Vance after, with some trepidation, they organized a letter signed by a group of Chattanooga-area Catholics calling for the bishop to be removed.
Their Oct. 7 letter — addressed to Vatican leadership and signed by more than 170 Catholics in the Chattanooga area — said Stika has failed as a leader, leaving parishioners "bewildered in the dark with no shepherd."
The letter said Stika, whose diocese includes Chattanooga-area Roman Catholic parishes, has stifled dissent, mishandled and been secretive about sexual abuse allegations within the diocese, misused diocese finances, and ignored calls for clarity on all fronts.
"We, the parishioners of the Knoxville Diocese, have lost faith in Bishop Stika as our Shepherd," the letter said. "We do not take this position lightly and understand fully well what we are asking through this letter. However, over the past several years it has become apparent that anything short of early retirement and/or removal of the Bishop may lead to further degradation of the church we hold so dear."
By phone early this month, Diocese of Knoxville spokesman Jim Wogan said he and the bishop understand the concerns raised in the letter, but pointed out the diocese comprises around 70,000 people.
"I think by and large there are many, many, many Catholics in this diocese that feel like they're being served in the right way," Wogan said.
Others said the concerns raised in the letter are shared more broadly than the number of signatories might suggest.
"I don't think it's a fringe group," said Holy Spirit Catholic Church Pastor Al Humbrecht, who, for several decades, has served in various leadership positions in the diocese, including filling in as top administrator twice during the periods between bishops. The letter, he said by phone early this month, "represents more than the people that signed it."
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI named Richard Stika the third bishop of Knoxville — assigning him to care for and preside over the priests and parishes in the young East Tennessee diocese.
Higgins said in a phone interview that her frustrations with Stika date to around 2018, when, rather than allowing confirmation sacraments to be held locally, he held all the ceremonies at — and thus made all Chattanooga families drive to — the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, which had recently been completed, to the skepticism of some, for more than $30 million.
"We always have felt like we were the redheaded stepchild of the diocese," Critchfield said by phone. "Everything good happens in Knoxville, and the rest of us are just kind of crumbs on the table."
Stika's confirmations — rites at which young Catholics affirm their admission to the church, which started with baptism — have repeatedly grated on parishioners, as he's shown up late and talked breezily about church scandals, the letter said.
Stika "kept everyone waiting," for example, at a spring children's confirmation, attended by Higgins and her son, this time hosted at their Chattanooga parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
A video of the ceremony shows Stika taking on an avuncular, jolly tone, inflected toward the children in attendance. He reflected on the nature of confusion — a feeling familiar to all which, he said, was probably experienced by those present for Jesus' death.
"But guess what?" Stika said. "A couple days later, he's back! Now, wouldn't that confuse you?"
Stika proceeded to administer the sacraments to the children, and as the ceremony wrapped up, he turned to the church, and offered seemingly off-hand comments which some attendees felt were inappropriate given the context.
"In the media lately, there's a couple lawsuits," he said.
He defended his record, and apologized for the "negative publicity," adding that "lawsuits are only one side of the story."
In recent years, multiple lawsuits have accused the diocese of mishandling sexual misconduct allegations. The Chattanooga letter said these cases "should be handled with humility and transparency," not with the "arrogance and flippancy" it said Stika has displayed.
Some of the lawsuits refer to decades-old alleged abuses. In December 2019, though it denied the plaintiff's allegations, the Diocese of Knoxville settled a lawsuit filed by an East Tennessee resident and former altar boy who said multiple formerly prominent diocesan figures — and a man who was at the time of the lawsuit still employed by the diocese — sexually assaulted him in the 1990s.
Other lawsuits concern more recent events. Earlier this month a Honduran asylum seeker, who said a priest at her Catholic church in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, sexually assaulted her in 2020, accused the diocese of intentionally obstructing a subsequent law enforcement investigation. Wogan said by email the diocese trusts the legal process and would not comment on the litigation.
These allegations form the backdrop for a principal subject of the Chattanooga letter: an ongoing lawsuit concerning a young seminarian who has faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. The lawsuit, filed in February, accused the seminarian of raping a fellow Diocese of Knoxville employee in 2019 — and Bishop Stika of intimidating the alleged victim and impeding a subsequent investigation.
Around 2018 Stika invited the young seminarian to work in the Diocese of Knoxville, the lawsuit said.
Both the seminarian and his anonymous accuser, a male musician, worked at the the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The lawsuit described a series of interactions between the two over a span of weeks — some friendly and vulnerable, others marred by the seminarian's awkward, aggressive and generally resisted sexual advances. Then, the lawsuit alleged, the seminarian raped the musician on Feb. 5, 2019.
Not long after the alleged assault the seminarian moved into Bishop Stika's West Knoxville residence — now worth more than $1 million, public records show — which he shared with Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of St. Louis, for whom Stika had previously worked.
Stika told the Pillar, a Catholic news publication that has reported extensively on the incident, that upon hearing about the sexual assault accusation he and another official investigated the matter and found that the allegations were false.
The seminarian went to a theology school in Indiana for further study but was dismissed around 2021 on multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, the lawsuit said, before returning to work within the Knoxville diocese and assisting Stika.
Stika remained convinced of the seminarian's innocence, attributing his dismissal from the theology school to "boundary issues" and suggesting to a reporter, in regards to the 2019 rape accusation, that the musician was in fact sexually aggressive toward the seminarian — comments the lawsuit cites as part of its defamation claim.
In 2021, citing concerns about competence and overreach, Stika dismissed a church-appointed investigator looking into the 2019 rape allegation, the Pillar reported, before appointing another to look into the case. This investigator, however, told a Pillar reporter at the time that the only person he interviewed for his investigation was the accused seminarian.
When Vance, the Knoxville-based activist, read the lawsuit, she was horrified, she said by phone earlier this month.
"Where was the background check that we hear so much about?" she asked.
The fresh allegations seemed to give momentum to concerns about Stika, which had not coalesced around the lawsuit alleging the decades-ago abuse of the former altar boy.
"The absolute nowness of it makes all the difference," Vance said. "Too many people know too many things this time. It's too current for the bishop to cover up."
The plaintiff is known to all parties but filed the lawsuit as "John Doe." This summer, a Knox County court denied the diocese's motion to dismiss the lawsuit but sided with its motion to make the plaintiff proceed under his real name.
By phone earlier this month, the plaintiff's attorney, Patrick Thronson, called the diocese's effort to block the use of a pseudonym troubling but said the plaintiff would refile the lawsuit under his own name.
Matt Pietsch, an attorney for the diocese, declined to comment on pending litigation, but pointed out the court's finding that the pseudonym was unwarranted. In its decision, the court cited the "presumptively open and public nature of judicial proceedings in Tennessee," and the fact that the plaintiff was an adult at times relevant to the lawsuit.
"A LIGHT SHONE"
An abiding concern of the Chattanooga letter is the opaqueness of internal diocese affairs.
"All I want is to have a light shone on it," Critchfield said. "That's all we're asking for. Put it all in the light."
The Chattanooga letter mentions a Vatican investigation into the diocese over Stika's leadership and complains about having received no word of its outcome.
Humbrecht, the Holy Spirit pastor, said he doesn't know if the Vatican is conducting an investigation of the diocese. But he said it's an "open secret" among clergy that former Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who recently retired, interviewed several Knoxville diocese priests.
Humbrecht said, according to his understanding of church affairs, Kurtz is unlikely to have initiated these interviews on his own volition. He said the direction to interview priests would have likely come from the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States — essentially the Pope's diplomatic mission.
Humbrecht said he was not interviewed and does not know what priests were asked.
"Priests haven't gotten an answer," he said. "Nobody has gotten an answer."
Humbrecht recalled an old church history professor who said, "The church is like an elephant. It can't move swiftly and gracefully at the same time."
The Pillar, citing anonymous sources, reported that outside Catholic officials plan to come soon to the Knoxville diocese to visit with priests, officials and laypeople. Humbrecht, by phone Friday, said a priest he knows reported to him having received a request to be interviewed. But Humbrecht said he doesn't know specifically what about.
Asked about the outcome of an investigation, Wogan, the diocese spokesman, said, "I don't know that there is an outcome. I don't know that there is an investigation. That would be a question for the Vatican."
By email, the Chattanooga Times Free Press asked the Archdiocese of Louisville, the Apostolic Nunciature to the U.S. and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops whether the Vatican has recently investigated the Diocese of Knoxville.
Brian Reynolds, the chancellor and chief administrative officer at the Archdiocese of Louisville, referred questions to the Apolistic Nunciature. The Apostolic Nunciature and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond.
Through Wogan, the Times Free Press made three unheeded requests to speak with Bishop Stika to get his perspective on the lawsuits and other concerns addressed in the letter from Chattanooga.
But Wogan said the diocese is being as transparent as it can while rigorously abiding by civil and church canon law and is committed to the rights of both the accuser and the accused.
"The accusation that the diocese is secretive is false unequivocally," he said.
Higgins said she does not want to see another scandal brought upon the Catholic church.
"Nobody wants to hurt themselves that way," she said.
But she wants to know whether a thorough investigation into allegations against the seminarian was in fact conducted and if in fact the seminarian did not hurt anybody, as Stika has suggested. If so, "then tell us that," Higgins said.
Still, while she said many parishioners may be reluctant to raise alarms over scandalous and unresolved lawsuits, she feels frustrations over a new — and to her unjust — diocese financial policy are something "everybody should be able to get behind."
This "tipping point" for Higgins came in August, when she learned the diocese would be "taxing" a large portion of pandemic relief money that went to some parish schools.
The Roman Catholic church was perhaps the biggest single beneficiary of taxpayer aid during the COVID-19 crisis. The nation's roughly 200 dioceses collected at least $3 billion through the U.S. government's pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program, according to The Associated Press.
Some Catholic ministries like Notre Dame High School individually applied for taxpayer funds, as did the Diocese of Knoxville as a whole — and collectively received more than $7 million in government loans, the vast majority of which was then forgiven, public records show.
The Diocese of Knoxville told its elementary schools not to apply for government relief, the letter of complaint said. Instead, the diocese applied for the program on behalf of some parishes, according to an August 2022 parish bulletin reviewed by the Times Free Press.
The original diocese loan was approved in April 2020, public records show. But the money was not distributed to the parish until 14 months later, according to the bulletin, which was produced by Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Well after receiving the money, the parish learned the diocese would assess roughly 25% of the funds — a "tax" the Chattanooga letter called "unconscionable."
Wogan, the diocese spokesman, suggested concerns regarding the funds reflect misunderstandings the diocese has actively worked with parishes to explain.
The relief funds were "appropriately included in the assessment formula," Wogan said.
"The assessable income calculation was no different this year than in every other previous year," he said. "The formula is the same."
Frustrated parishioners counter that typically the diocese takes 25% of offerings — such as Sunday collections — but that parishes did not feel the relief money should fall in this category.
Asked by email whether they were paying the assessment on Paycheck Protection Program funds, Chattanooga area's St. Jude School declined to be interviewed, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help did not respond.
It is unclear if other U.S. Catholic dioceses similarly assessed the forgiven loans but the practice seems to be at least rare. In June, The Pillar surveyed school pastors in 12 other U.S. dioceses, and all said the program funds had not been subject to assessment from their respective dioceses.
"WE DESERVE BETTER"
In August, a Catholic friend in the Chattanooga area reached out to Critchfield.
The friend had told a priest they had been praying about frustrations with the bishop. According to Critchfield, the priest told her friend maybe it's time to do more than pray.
Moved to action, Critchfield reached out to Higgins.
"And then we each reached out to another person and another person," Critchfield said.
They formed a like-minded group of about 10 or 12 people, Critchfield said. Over Zoom, they "shared their stories and their experiences and their frustrations," she said.
The conversation galvanized them further, underscoring that they were positioned to vent their concerns in a way they felt clergy was not, Higgins said.
Still, it was difficult to establish clear goals.
"I think people are pretty skittish about saying what we want to happen," Higgins said. "Prayerfully, what we want to happen is God's will, right?"
Critchfield is a lawyer, and she compiled the complaints into letter form, drawing on church canon law. They settled on the language in the letter calling for the bishop's removal.
The process took weeks.
"It's a really tough thing to do," Critchfield said. "I personally, am not the kind of person who stands out on the street corners, yelling at people, or protesting stuff. I'm not a militant, I'm a rule follower."
The letter completed, they sought signatures from people they knew and trusted in their parish, at other parishes and through their mutual connections at Notre Dame High School, of which Higgins is an graduate and where Critchfield has two children, coaches mock trial and serves on the advisory board. Critchfield said signatories included parishioners at Basilica of Sts. Peter & Paul, St. Jude Catholic Church, St. Augustine Church, St. Stephen Catholic Church, St. Mary's Church, and her own Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
While seeking signatories, the organizers intentionally didn't put the letter out on social media, for fear the medium might flatten the message — and that the message might prematurely get out and be stifled.
Realizing they needed a formal-seeming institution to which the letters' recipients might respond, they added the letterhead for Critchfield's law firm and mailed the letters off to three addresses: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Apostolic Nunciature, and the Archdiocese of Louisville.
They mailed the letters Oct. 7, Critchfield said, because it was the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. All prior letters they had written individually had little apparent effect, and she hoped the holy day might consecrate their efforts.
Critchfield said she has not received a response.
Given the number of signatories they amassed — and she said they've gathered more since — she said she finds the silence infuriating.
The Archdiocese of Louisville confirmed by email it had received the letter but offered no further comment and noted the Archbishop does not technically supervise the bishop of Knoxville.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Apostolic Nunciature did not respond to inquiries from The Times Free Press about whether they had received the letter and if they intended to take any action in response.
For at least one priest, the letter marks an occasion to seriously examine laity concerns.
"We, like so many churches right now, are in the process of saying, 'You know, wait a minute, our lay people have to have a voice,'" Humbrecht said. "'They are the church, just like the clergy. And it's important that we listen.'"
Vance, of SNAP Tennessee, said she started as an activist around 2002 when, as a teacher, she wanted to change the name of a parish building named for the first — and by some, still warmly regarded — bishop of Knoxville, Anthony O'Connell, who faced multiple accusations of sexual abuse. According to newspaper reports, he resigned from his subsequent bishop posting and publicly admitted to having decades prior molested a teenager. He spent his final years in a monastery.
Vance said in previous years, people gave diocese leadership the benefit of the doubt when people raised concerns about abuses. Now she perceives a "groundswell" of skepticism, unprecedented in her years of activism.
"It has become evident," Vance said, "to the priests and a lot of people that this is going to take a village to get this done."
Higgins said she first became aware of Vance in the lead-up to the Oct. 30 SNAP protest.
Some in the Chattanooga group were reluctant to attend, Higgins said, for fear that joining up with Vance might cause people to think, "Oh, here they go again," Higgins said.
By email, Vance said, "People don't like people who say uncomfortable things."
On Oct. 30, in separate cars, Higgins and Critchfield decided to embark with their children to Knoxville and joined around 20 people at the SNAP Tennessee protest, which began before Mass at the cathedral.
Critchfield said she'd engaged with social issues through meetings and other avenues, but this was the first protest she ever attended.
Attendees gathered. Critchfield and her children held signs saying "we deserve better" and objecting to the assessment on pandemic relief money.
Critchfield said she could tell some passersby dismissed her and the other protesters as "some of the crazies." Others, she said, expressed curiosity, or clapped, or gave a thumbs up, before continuing on into the cathedral.