No end in sight for damages caused by Illinois priest

Another abuse case has been filed against Kownacki, who has proved to be biggest liability.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/October 19, 2011

Belleville -- Jim Wisniewski's attorney was handed $6.3 million in checks a few months ago for the abuse the former altar boy said he suffered in the 1970s at the hands of an infamous priest named Raymond Kownacki.

The payout, delayed by a long fight for church records and appeals, was the fruit of a civil trial in 2008 that was the first of its kind against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville.

Kownacki was one of 14 priests removed from ministry in the diocese in the 1990s, well before the national priest abuse scandal hit fever pitch in 2002. But he has become the largest liability of them all for the diocese, with no end in sight for future damages. And not just because Kownacki continues to refer to himself as a priest.

Wisniewski's case cleared a landing strip for others to follow.

The jury agreed that the diocese fraudulently concealed abuse, which kicked over the statute of limitations hurdle that the diocese had counted on to protect it from old accusations. Jurors not only levied $2.6 million in punitive damages, but physically embraced Wisniewski when it was over.

There was no question of guilt, said juror Joe Maguire, 68, of Smithton. It was just a matter of deciding damages.

"Good God, he should have been put in prison, and they kept moving him around," he said in an interview. "And who were the people moving him around? They should have been charged with something, I would have thought, for covering up for him."

The jury accepted the argument that Wisniewski didn't realize the onslaught of damage done to him as a teenager until he was well into his 40s. On Oct. 3, a similar case — John Doe S.W. vs. Kownacki and the diocese — landed at the St. Clair County Courthouse.

Doe, 42, a former caretaker for Kownacki, says Kownacki abused him in the mid-1980s in and around St. Mary's Catholic Church in Valmeyer, where Doe also served as an altar boy. Doe claims Kownacki gave him a list of names in 2009 to contact on his behalf, including people who had complained that Kownacki abused them. Around that time, Doe "recovered the memories" of his own abuse, according to the lawsuit.

Doe, who lives in the St. Louis area, hired Jeff Anderson, an attorney from St. Paul, Minn., who has represented numerous clergy sex abuse victims since the 1980s, including a case in recent years that ultimately helped put Mother Teresa's spiritual adviser in prison.

"We see this as a very serious matter, and their exposure is very real," Anderson said of the Belleville Diocese.

He said there was a familiar pattern that fits scores of other cases around the country: a protocol for secrecy to avoid scandal rather than protect children. Last week, the issue captured national attention when Bishop Robert Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were indicted on criminal charges for failing to report a recent case of a priest found with pornographic photos of children. Church leaders are accused of taking months to turn the matter over to law enforcement.

In the Kownacki saga, Anderson said his client's lawsuit will benefit from the trail of evidence developed by the Wisniewski trial, whose $5 million jury verdict was upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court. By the time the verdict was paid, the amount had grown in interest during appeals to $6.3 million.

Wisniewski's attorney, Mike Weilmuenster of Belleville, said the high-dollar case will benefit two additional lawsuits he's pursuing that allege Kownacki abused teenage boys who are now grown men.

"I don't have to reinvent the wheel," said Weilmuenster, who already secured a $1.2 million settlement in 2009 involving the priest. "The evidence is clear. Some of those legal obstacles have been addressed now."

The diocese has publicly kept quiet, other than to say that it regrets any instances of childhood sexual abuse by a member of the clergy.

Ed Barbier, of the Southern Illinois Association of Priests, whose membership includes active priests in the Belleville Diocese, said the group wants Kownacki laicized, or defrocked.

"And further, that he should be held personally responsible both civilly and criminally for his actions," Barbier wrote in an email. "The Southern Illinois Association of Priests has also asked that those responsible for Kownacki's cover-up and frequent transfers be acknowledged and reprimanded."

It's possible the diocese has taken steps to laicize Kownacki and others, but the diocese would not comment.

Kownacki, who is 76, grew up in a large family in rural Tamaroa, Ill., and was ordained in 1960.

According to court testimony, he was based in Guatemala for about five years. Upon his return to Southern Illinois in 1970, he arrived with two twin boys who lived with him — one of whom he was allegedly abusing. The parent of a girl in Guatemala also complained that Kownacki was the father of her child, according to documents from the trial.

Kownacki was placed in St. Francisville, Ill., where he befriended Gina Trimble, 14, a housekeeper who then moved with him in 1971 to St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church in Washington Park. Two years later, she fled to her parents, who reported to the diocese that Kownacki had raped and attempted to perform an abortion on her with his hand, according to court documents.

After the complaint, Kownacki wrote a letter to Trimble, asking her to quickly come back. In another letter, he wrote: "I do hope the future brings you the best of everything because I'm realizing only now that I was your whole problem."

Kownacki was transferred to St. Theresa's Catholic Church and School in Salem, Ill., where he was accused of abusing Wisniewski and at least three other boys.

He was moved to parishes in the Illinois towns of Cobden, Harrisburg, Tipton, Madonnaville and Valmeyer, often with letters of support from the diocese — contained in the court record — saying he was to protect the 'souls" of the flock, despite a mounting trail of complaints. According to one note read into evidence in the trial, he wrote to a boy frequenting the rectory at the time: "Come up to my bedroom. If I am sleeping or not and massage me. I need it. I love you. Ray."

Kownacki was ultimately removed from ministry in 1995.

He has not been convicted of a crime and thus need not register as a sex offender. He still receives benefits from the diocese, which lists him on its website as retired and on administrative leave.

Doe, who filed the most recent case against him, said Kownacki has continued to send letters to Doe's teenage children. A copy of an envelope sent in June has a small sticker of a whale on it, down from the return address from a Catholic nursing home in the 4600 block of Lansdowne Avenue in south St. Louis that states the letter is from Father Ray Kownacki.

Kownacki reports to have had a stroke around 2005 and has aphasia, which has affected his speech. But standing in his nursing home earlier this month, he was well enough to answer a reporter's question.

Asked about the Doe case, he said, "I don't care," and refused to say anything more.

He no longer lives there. A woman working the front desk Tuesday wouldn't provide a forwarding address.

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