Ill. diocese pays $6.3 million after failed appeal of sex-abuse case

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/August 10, 2011

Belleville, Illinois -- A clergy sex abuse case with misconduct dating back to the 1970s finally ended Wednesday when James Wisniewski's attorney was handed checks totaling $6.3 million.

Though the case during trial shed a disturbing light on how disgraced priest Raymond Kownacki was assigned to minister at different parishes, it brought little resolution to a set of uncertainties facing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville.

A large group of priests in southern Illinois have been calling on Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton's resignation, claiming he mismanaged the recent case and future liabilities. Braxton has also brought the attention of a national Catholic publication that recently suggested the diocese has financial woes.

The $6.3 million was paid after a nine-year court battle marked by multiple appeals by the diocese. The damages were paid three years after a jury awarded Wisniewski, of Champaign, Ill., and now in his early 50s, $5 million in a suit in which he claimed the Kownacki sexually abused him as a child. But since the 2008 verdict, the judgment grew by another $1.3 million with interest, which drew scorn about diocesan leadership.

As recently as last month, Braxton had asked the Illinois Supreme Court to reconsider the matter. He remains reclusive, never commenting to the media and rarely mingling with his flock outside of giving leading mass.

"I hope this will help the Catholic community," Wisniewski's attorney, Mike Weilmuenster, said after a brief hearing Wednesday at the St. Clair County Courthouse. "It has been quite splintered."

He thanked the jury once again in the case because it compensated his client and attempted to send "a message to the Belleville diocese that enabling childhood sexual abuse and covering it up will not be tolerated by this community."

Of the original $5 million award, $2.6 million was designated to punitive damages.

The Rev. John Myler, a spokesman for the diocese, said: "The diocese is of course aware of the payment that was made today, but nevertheless the diocese continues to express our regret for any instances of childhood sexual abuse by a member of the clergy."

Even though payment arrived, with at least $1.5 million coming from insurance, the diocese still wouldn't comment specially about the case. Weilmuenster said his client hasn't received a direct apology from church leadership.

Asked about the specific case, Myler had no comment and would only add that the "diocese is committed to adhering to its childhood protection policy and the diocese will continue to assist victims and their families according to that policy."

Kownacki was removed from the ministry in 1995 after abuse allegations began to surface. A former housekeeper accused him of raping, beating and performing an abortion on her in the 1970s. That case, which alleged Kownacki was quietly shuffled between parishes, was dismissed after the state Supreme Court ruled that it exceeded the statute of limitations.

Even though Wisniewski filed his case about three decades after he was abused, the jury agreed that the diocese concealed and misrepresented material facts about Kownacki and therefore the statute of limitations did not bar his claim, Weilmuenster said. It's a detail that will likely be argued in other clergy sex abuse cases, particularly those involving Kownacki.

Even though there were abuse claims against Kownacki, the diocese assigned him to ministry work at various parishes.

Another case was filed against Kownacki in 2003 by a man identified as John Doe, who as a boy mowed the parish lawn at St. Theresa's Catholic Church and School in Salem, Ill., where Kownacki was pastor from 1979 to 1986. That case was settled in 2009 for $1.2 million. Wisniewski's case also stemmed from the time Kownacki was at St. Theresa's.

Two more cases are pending that allege Kownacki sexually abused young boys who are now grown men. Another abuse case is pending in the diocese involving the Rev. Jerome Ratermann.

Kownacki recently moved to a small apartment in Dupo, Ill., to an assisted living home in South St. Louis. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The diocese would not comment about the pending cases nor about accusations that Braxton is mismanaging the diocese.

In a June letter to his flock regarding an effort to get the Illinois Supreme Court to reconsider the Wisniewski verdict, Braxton said that it was a difficult time to be bishop. But he said offenses by priests continue to have "moral, emotional, legal and financial consequences."

"We are not doing this to 'hide behind the law,' as some might suggest," he said of seeking appeal. "We are doing this in the hope of a clarification of the law and a consistency in applying the law to the Catholic Church. We are also doing it in the hope of conserving resources for responding to other abuse victims and for sustaining the pastoral services of the Diocese of Belleville."

The Southern Illinois Association of Priests has long asked that Braxton be replaced and recently cited the Wisniewski case as an example why. Even though he wasn't bishop when the claims occurred, interest on the 2008 judgment grew by about $1,200 a day.

Then National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic newspaper, reported in July that a member of the Belleville diocesan finance council, James Friederich, had called Braxton "a financial disaster" and noted that "he did not ask the council for its advice or consent before allowing the Wisniewski suit to go to trial" nor did he seek "the advice or consent of the council before he decided to appeal the $5 million judgment rather than try to settle for less money."

Friederich, in a statement, predicted the diocese "will soon be bankrupt because of (Braxton's) arrogance" with finances and handling sex abuse cases, according to the National Catholic Reporter story.

Friederich recently declined to comment. A request to interview James Mroczkowski, the chief financial officer of the diocese, was also denied.

Weilmuenster, the attorney, said priests have approached him in support of the case that was paid out Wednesday. Both he and his client, Wisniewski, are still Catholics.

"The vast majority of priests live very good lives and do very great things," Weilmuenster said. "It's a shame that many of them have been tarred with the brush of actions from just a few bad priests."

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Wisniewski case "never should have come to this."

"I suspect dozens of church staff knew about Kownacki, or at least suspected and kept quiet," he said, encouraging people who suspect child sex crimes to call police. "We would hope that Bishop Braxton shift from legal hardball to real prevention."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.