High-ranking Catholic clergy conducted a fact-finding visit to the Diocese of Knoxville late last year, three sources confirmed, as two lawsuits targeting the local church over its handling of sex abuse allegations are ongoing.
The visit - known as an apostolic visitation - was headed by Bishops Barry Knestout of Richmond and Michael Burbidge of Arlington, according to one of two priests with direct knowledge of the trip.
Apostolic visitations are ordered by church authorities to dig into the spiritual well-being of a diocese.
Apostolic visitations often are a signal that church leaders are concerned about a matter and gives them a chance to speak directly with people involved.
Additionally, a letter from parishioners in Chattanooga was sent in October to high-ranking church officials detailing concerns about Bishop Richard Stika, who leads the 70,000-member diocese located in East Tennessee.
Another letter, from Susan Vance of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was sent in October to Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, who oversees the Knoxville diocese, saying that the diocese is silencing victims of clergy sexual abuse.
The two priests told Knox News they spoke to church officials as part of the apostolic visitation, though both declined to say what was discussed or the purpose of the meetings.
The visitation was first reported by The Pillar, a publication that covers the Catholic Church, and attributed to unnamed sources.
A spokesperson for the diocese declined to confirm the visit, saying confirmation would have to come from the Vatican in Rome.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese in Louisville, which oversees the Knoxville diocese, referred questions to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in Washington, D.C.
The Apostolic Nunciature, which would likely have authorized such a visit, did not respond to emailed questions from Knox News. Neither did the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
What is an apostolic visitation?
Apostolic visitations are rare and indicate trouble for the diocese, said Gerard J. McGlone, a Jesuit priest and senior research fellow at Georgetown University. The purpose, he said, is to address questions and concerns parishioners and others have raised about the governance of a church or diocese.
Visitations require approval by the Vatican in Rome or, at the very least, by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nunciature who serves as an ambassador from the Vatican.
“This is something that’s gotten the attention of the top bishops and not something Stika would’ve wanted," McGlone said.
"If the body of Christ is suffering, this is a way of addressing the suffering."
The Pillar reported the visitation likely was scheduled after a September meeting between priests and Louisville Archbishop Fabre that did not include Stika. The publication also has reported complaints about Stika were previously made to the Vatican.
Earlier this week, Stika personally interfered with a diocesan investigation into whether a seminarian raped a diocesan employee in 2019, independently confirming allegations that are detailed in a sexual abuse lawsuit by the man who says he was sexually assaulted.
That lawsuit relies heavily on revelations unearthed by The Pillar, which first reported on Stika's removal of investigator George Prosser in May 2021.
Three months after the diocese and Stika were named in the lawsuit last year, leaders made the church’s sexual abuse review board meetings much more secretive, including requiring members to sign nondisclosure agreements.
What did the letters say about the Knoxville diocese?
Parishioners said Stika has not been transparent about the sex abuse allegations and the diocese's finances, is frequently late for Masses, intimidates priests and church members.
They also were upset that a Vatican investigator looking into the diocese's affairs has not spoken to any church members in the Chattanooga deanery, a grouping of parishes within the diocese.
Vance said the diocese silenced a man who settled a sexual abuse lawsuit by requiring him as part of the settlement to sign a nondisparagment agreement.
Vance said the agreement violates church rules about transparency in sex abuse cases.
What's in the lawsuit involving a seminarian?
The lawsuit filed by John Doe, a placeholder name to protect his identity, asserts the diocese did not properly investigate sexual abuse allegations against a former employee, a seminarian.
The complaint outlines in vivid detail several instances of sexual harassment and abuse the plaintiff said he suffered.
The abuse occurred in 2019 when the plaintiff was a musician at The Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, according to the lawsuit, and when the former employee worked as an assistant to Stika, a job that involved travel to different parishes.
The plaintiff contends he was subject to a pattern of grooming and details one instance on Feb. 5, 2019, when the plaintiff said the former employee raped him.
Following subsequent instances of harassment, the former employee wrote a letter to the plaintiff on Feb. 14, 2019, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit included a copy of the letter.
“And for what was wrong – I apologize with all my heart,” the letter read, according to the lawsuit.
What's in the lawsuit involving a priest?
The lawsuit filed by Jane Doe, a placeholder name to protect the identity of the woman, a Honduran asylum seeker living in Gatlinburg, asserts the Rev. Antony Devassey Punnackal, of St. Mary's Catholic Church, groped her while he counseled her after the death of the father of her infant.
The woman says she went to the police soon after the assault, but it took until Jan. 4 for Punnackal to be indicted by a Sevier County grand jury on two counts of sexual battery. He was removed from ministry two days after the indictment, a diocesan spokesperson said.
The board’s bylaws require officials to immediately contact any adult who says they were sexually exploited “to offer assurance of the concern of the diocese and its commitment to hear and respond in an appropriate way to the accusations.” No one contacted Jane Doe, her lawsuit asserts.
Instead, members of the board contacted police investigators, first to tell them the woman had engaged in a consensual sexual encounter with Punnackal.
The diocese also hired an investigator to look into the allegations and, after obtaining her employment documents, contacted police and told them the woman had committed employment fraud by working under a false name and asked for her to be arrested, the lawsuit says.
Such an allegation, true or not, could cause problems for the woman’s pending asylum claim, and the investigator knew this, the lawsuit says.