Belleville Diocese responds to lawsuit alleging child sex abuse by senior priest in ’80s
By Lexi Cortes
October 7, 2019
The recent civil lawsuit alleging a boy was sexually abused by a Belleville priest in the ’80s was filed 18 years too late to seek damages for the trauma he says he suffered, the Belleville Diocese’s attorneys are arguing in court.
The now 38-year-old man filed his complaint July 19 in St. Clair County Circuit Court, within today’s statute of limitations: 20 years after his 18th birthday or 20 years after realizing he was harmed by past abuse, if he repressed the memories, for example.
But the diocese says his complaint should instead be subject to the law as it was in 1999, when the man turned 18. At that time, the statute of limitations expired within two years.
The man, who filed under the pseudonym John Doe, alleged the Rev. Joseph Schwaegel sexually abused him when he was between 6 and 8 years old and a student at Cathedral Grade School in Belleville.
At the time, Schwaegel was the school’s superintendent and in charge of the diocese’s largest parish, Belleville’s St. Peter’s Cathedral. He would call Doe and other students out of class to be alone with him, and the lawsuit states that is when the priest abused Doe.
Schwaegel was also accused of abusing an 8-year-old boy at the school and rectory in 1973. The accuser in that case, Jeph Hemmer, said he repressed the memories until 1998. He filed his lawsuit in 1999. It ended in a settlement.
Schwaegel was removed from the church in 1994 while he underwent therapy for sex addiction. His removal came after he was arrested for sexual misconduct with adults in 1987 and 1994. At the time, Schwaegel told the Belleville News-Democrat that he wasn’t attracted to children and that he “never hurt a child.” He died in 2016.
Catherine Schroeder, an attorney representing the diocese today, filed a motion to dismiss Doe’s lawsuit Sept. 27, arguing the statute of limitations on his allegations expired in 2001.
“... Because (Doe’s) claim in this case became time-barred in 2001, it remains time-barred and cannot be revived by any of the subsequent amendments to (the law),” the motion states.
Michael Garavalia, one of Doe’s attorneys, said they plan to file an amended complaint.
What has been done to prevent abuse?
The diocese’s spokesman, Monsignor John Myler, declined to comment on the ongoing litigation in a submitted statement. But he said the diocese has taken steps over nearly two decades “to protect children,” including yearly training for adults to recognize the behavior of offenders and to report it.
“Since 2003, over 36,184 individuals in the diocese have been part of this training,” he wrote.
Children also receive training to learn “skills to help protect themselves from abuse,” according to Myler.
“While the Diocese of Belleville cannot respond to aspects of the specific legal case, we can state that there have been no allegations of childhood sexual abuse occurring during the past 25 years against one of our own diocesan clerics,” Myler wrote. “Cases and allegations, even recent ones, involve episodes of 30, 40, or 50 or more years ago.”
Following reporting by the BND in the mid-’90s, a diocese review board removed 12 priests and a deacon from their ministries.
Today, volunteers, employees and candidates for ordination and clergy who have contact with children undergo background checks. And the diocese requires “intensive background screening” and psychological testing for students who want to enter the seminary.
It has a code of conduct that outlines acceptable behavior and a zero-tolerance policy that removes offending clerics from church ministry when sexual abuse is “admitted or established after an appropriate process,” according to Myler. He said the diocese also works with local and state law enforcement agencies to report sexual abuse allegations, even if they are decades old.
The diocese has established a hotline for people to report sexual abuse, 1-800-640-3044.
There are positions dedicated to the effort to prevent abuse, Myler said: a victim assistance coordinator and director of child protection services. The director makes sure the diocese is in compliance with its “Child Protection Policy” and with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The coordinator’s job is to assure victims they will be heard.
When Schwaegel’s job was to communicate with accusers, he told at least one family to let “bygones be bygones,” according to his testimony during a civil trial over allegations against the defrocked priest Raymond Kownacki. Schwaegel was then Bishop James Keleher’s secretary and said he sent a letter to the family at the bishop’s direction.
“We have done as you asked, and not said anything to anybody,” the family wrote back to Schwaegel, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report from 2008.
In that case, the diocese had received allegations that Kownacki abused children over the course of more than 20 years. Officials didn’t fully investigation those allegations and instead transferred Kownacki to different parishes, according to Schwaegel’s testimony.
During Schwaegel’s career, officials in the diocese gave him the elevated title of monsignor. He was also known as the “singing priest.” He performed the national anthem at Busch Stadium and released multiple albums, including one he dedicated to former Bishop William Cosgrove.
“Much has been done and more will be done so that child sexual abuse is no longer part of not only the church, but all society,” Myler wrote in his statement. “The diocese will continue to do all that is necessary to protect our children, as well as to assist individuals who come to us with allegations.”