|Jury Will Decide on Possible Sex Abuse Coverup by Belleville Diocese
By George Pawlaczyk
August 5, 2008
[with link to the judge's ruling]
Lawsuit against diocese, priest set for Aug. 18
Read the court document
BELLEVILLE - For the first time since the early 1990s when priest misconduct began to be widely reported, a civil court jury will be asked to decide whether Belleville Diocese officials conducted a coverup.
If a jury rules that the diocese engaged in "fraudulent concealment" of sex abuse by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, 73, then statute of limitation concerns will be overcome. That would allow a full trial in a lawsuit brought by James Wisniewski, of Champaign, to go forward, according to a 15-page ruling filed Friday by St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto. The lawsuit claims psychological damage and names Kownacki and the diocese.
If jurors decide there was no concealment, the jury's job will be over. Trial is set for Aug. 18.
Former Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory failed to turn over all reports about Kownacki to a civilian review board in 1994 investigating priest misconduct, according to the ruling's summary of deposition testimony by board administrator Margie Mensen. Gregory, now the archbishop of Atlanta, did not respond to a request for comment.
Cueto's ruling stated that if the allegations of a coverup are true, the diocese protected priests at the expense of children.
"If true, the Diocese of Belleville was a willing participant in the culture of shielding a predator priest and ignoring victims' complaints," Cueto wrote. "This resulted in more innocent children being victimized and experiencing the pain, anger and confusion of being sexually molested by a person of trust who was thought to represent Christ."
Cueto's ruling is based on sworn deposition testimony from Wisniewski; from diocese officials, including Monsignor James Margason, the former vicar general; and on diocese reports about Kownacki that go back 35 years. Margason was Gregory's representative to the review board in 1994, but failed to reveal full information about Kownacki, the ruling states. Margason, the pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Shiloh, said he cannot comment on a pending legal matter.
Kownacki, who was removed from active ministry in 1995, could not be reached. He is accused of molesting Wisniewski from 1973 to 1978, beginning when Wisniewski was a 13-year-old altar boy at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem. According to court documents, Wisniewski did not become aware that he had been psychologically damaged by the abuse until he read news reports about widespread priest sex abuse of minors in Boston.
Cueto wrote in his ruling that Margason's testimony shows that despite repeated complaints against Kownacki, including that he used his hands in an attempt to induce an abortion in a teenage girl he had gotten pregnant, the priest was reassigned to other parishes with no warning to parishioners. When he was sent for treatment, it was for alcohol and not because of sex abuse allegations.
Cueto's court order also referred to deposition testimony of Mensen, the administrator of the civilian review board set up to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and to offer counseling to victims.
Mensen testified in July that Gregory did not turn over all reports held by the diocese concerning Kownacki as required by review board rules. The ruling states that Gregory turned over two letters from Kownacki to the girl he allegedly impregnated.
"I'm getting new information here," Mensen said during her July 2 deposition, according to a transcript.
Reports about Kownacki's alleged abuse of other boys at St. Theresa's contained a reference of abuse to Wisniewski. But because the review board never received the report, its members did not know about Wisniewski and could not offer him counseling, according to a summary of Mensen's testimony in the Cueto ruling.
"This will be the closest thing we've ever had in Belleville to a trial on sex abuse by a priest," said Dave Clohessy, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2625
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