Three new lawsuits claim sexual abuse by Belleville Diocese priests

Belleville News-Democrat, Illinois/April 16, 2009

Three separate lawsuits were filed Wednesday naming three new alleged victims of sexual abuse by two priests from the Belleville Diocese.

The three suits were filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court by the same attorneys who won a $5 million verdict last August for James Wisniewski of Champaign. Each refers to a decades-old Vatican document that directed that evidence of sex abuse of minors by priests must be kept secret within the church.

Steven Kern, 42, and two plaintiffs known only by initials - 48-year-old "K.C." and 46-year-old "D.S." -- filed suit separately through lawyers Mike Weilmuenster and Steve Wigginton of Belleville.

Kern and K.C. alleged they were abused as young teenagers at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem in the 1970s by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, and D.S. alleges he was abused at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Waterloo by the Rev. Jerome Ratermann.

The attorneys who represented Wisniewski, of Champaign, during his successful civil trial last year in Belleville on claims that the Belleville Diocese covered up sex abuse by Kownacki, also filed a motion alleging that church officials failed to turn over key information in that case. The diocese has appealed the $5 million verdict to the 5th Appellate Court in Mt. Vernon.

Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton and former Bishop Wilton Gregory, now archbishop of Atlanta, are both named in the motion, which claims they knew about the latest allegations, but that church officials failed to make Wisniewski's lawyers aware of this knowledge.

Kownacki, of Dupo, has stated he will not comment. Ratermann could not be reached. Both priests were removed by a diocesan review board in the mid-1990s for alleged sexual abuse of minors. Neither was charged criminally.

The motion alleges that Braxton replied to Kern's sister in 2005 after she wrote a letter to him concerning alleged sexual abuse by Kownacki, and that Gregory had discussions with Kern's parents concerning the same abuse. Neither the letter nor the alleged knowledge of the discussion was turned over to the Wisniewski legal team, the motion contends.

Neither Braxton nor Gregory could be reached.

In the new lawsuits naming Kownacki, the ousted priest is accused of abusing minors by "by touching or fondling ... genitalia and engaging in oral sex."

The lawsuit naming Ratermann alleges that while he was the principal of Mater Dei High School in Breese he engaged in the same acts of sexual molestation of a minor while on a houseboat on Carlyle Lake. Some minors leaped overboard and swam to shore.

The plaintiff known as "D.S." is alleged to have had repressed memory of the alleged sexual abuse until a few years ago.

In the lawsuits involving Kern and K.C., they claim the two did not realize the extent of the psychological damage caused by the alleged sexual molestation until a few years ago.

In the Wisniewski lawsuit, statute of limitation concerns were overcome through expert medical testimony that the victim did not realize he had post traumatic stress disorder until 2002 when sex abuse of minors by priests became a national story.

Each of the three new lawsuits contains a reference to a 43-page document approved by Pope John XXIII in 1962 that Weilmeunster characterized during a telephone interview as a "...conspiracy in writing approved by a pope."

Weilmuenster, who said that he recently learned of the document's existence from lawyers in a clergy sex abuse prosecution in another state, contends that the Belleville Diocese had a copy of the document that should have been turned over during the discovery process.

"I tried this (Wisniewski) case without the benefit of this information," he said.

According to the three lawsuits, the 1962 Vatican document -- "On the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation," was to be kept from public view and directed that evidence of sexual abuse by priests must be, "diligently stored in the secret archives of the Curia (Vatican office) as strictly confidential."

The motion states that the Vatican document, "Makes clear throughout that, in all circumstances, sex abuse cases dealing with minor children are to be kept strictly secret."

A Google search on the Internet revealed that the Vatican document was made public in 2003 during an investigative report by the BBC.

The Vatican directive contradicts the focus of the 2001 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," that was spearheaded by Gregory when, as bishop of Belleville, he headed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That document urged "transparency" on the subject of sexual abuse by priests.

Weilmuenster said there are "various remedies" that a court can take if a judge decides that the diocese improperly withheld discovery material. He declined to comment further.

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