Belleville Diocese Cited for Contempt

Belleville News-Democrat [Belleville IL]
Downloaded May 2, 2004

A St. Clair County judge has found the Catholic Diocese of Belleville in contempt for failing to turn over medical records of a retired metro-east priest accused in two civil lawsuits involving child sexual abuse. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the ruling is the first of its kind in the nation against a Catholic diocese for failing to turn over records. But a spokesman for Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the diocese was found in contempt in at least one other lawsuit that it appealed.

Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto ruled Feb. 27 that the diocese must turn over the decades-old mental and medical records of the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, who was removed from priestly duties in 1995 shortly after Bishop Wilton Gregory took office.

Cueto directed that only medical records before laws were enacted protecting such records from disclosure had to be given to the plaintiff.

The lawsuit was filed by former altar boy James Wisniewski in September. Wisniewski accuses the priest of sexually abusing him for five years in the 1970s, starting when he was 12. He says the diocese kept Kownacki in the ministry in the 1970s, even after it had been warned about his behavior by a teenage housekeeper.

In a statement issued Saturday, David Clohessy, national director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said, "No matter how bishops or their lawyers try to 'spin' this, everyone knows what 'contempt of court' means. It means Bishop Gregory is defying a judge's order."

Monsignor James Margason, vicar general, said the diocese has appealed Cueto's ruling to the 5th Appellate Court in Mount Vernon with the argument that even medical records before the confidentiality laws were enacted are still protected. "The process that we have followed is the normal process," Margason said Saturday. Wisniewski and an unidentified plaintiff in a second lawsuit in St. Clair County Court not affected by the contempt of court ruling have accused Kownacki of sexually abused them over years.

Attorney J. Michael Weilmuenster, of Belleville, is seeking Kownacki's medical records in the Wisniewski case to support an argument that the church knew he was dangerous to children but kept him in the ministry, said St. Paul, Minn., lawyer Pat Noaker. The Minnesota lawyer, who represents the unidentified plaintiff, said, "The tragic side to this whole thing is that they knew about Kownacki from way, way back. Father Kownacki was at a church in Salem, Ill., and this young guy cut the grass for the church. Kownacki lured him in and sexually abused him." Noaker described his client as being under 12 years old when the alleged abuse occurred. Before his assignment in Salem, Kownacki had been a priest at a church in Washington Park, where he was accused in a lawsuit brought in 2000 of raping his housemaid, getting her pregnant and trying to abort the fetus himself. That case was dismissed because of the statute of limitations. As president of the bishops' group for two years, Gregory has been the guiding force in urging his colleagues to repair the sexual abuse scandal through openness, accountability and a pastoral approach to victims.

Even before the scandal emerged nationwide in 2002, Gregory had helped resolve a crisis in Belleville by banning all abusive priests from the ministry. Fifteen priests were banned.

Noaker says that despite public statements by church leaders like Gregory, the church fights some child sexual abuse allegations in court.

"What we're seeing is a Bishop Gregory saying all the right things but when it comes to actually handling actual cases of sexual abuse, what we're seeing is lawyers basically using the old school, hard-ball litigation tactics that they've always used." Jeff Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul who works with Noaker on hundreds of cases against the church, said: "The church has resisted the disclosure of documents in almost every case, but when they've been threatened with contempt, it's always resulted in disclosure or a settlement. I can't think of a time where they've been held in contempt by a court for refusal to produce the documents."

But Margason said he is certain it has happened before in the Belleville Diocese, but said he did not have access on Saturday to records that would supply details. Mark E. Chopko, general counsel for the bishops' conference, said that such contempt rulings were "a very common legal device," and that some church leaders had been sanctioned before in cases that involved sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

Wisniewski's suit says the diocese committed conspiracy and fraud and asks for at least $50,000 in damages.

Weilmuenster, the lawyer for Wisniewski, sought access to the priest's mental health records in an effort to prove that the diocese was aware that he had a history of abuse.

The diocese and Kownacki, who are co-defendants, fought the release of the files citing confidentiality laws common to many states.

"The basis for it is perfectly understandable," the lawyer for the diocese, W. David Wells, said. "If you thought your medical records would be a matter of public knowledge, you probably would not be as candid with your doctor."

The judge decided the diocese had to turn over any records created before the laws on patient confidentiality went into effect, 1979 for mental health and 1988 for substance abuse.

Weilmuenster said he had sent Gregory a letter saying that Wisniewski did not want to litigate the case and would like to meet the bishop and that the bishop never responded.

Margason, however, said that he conferred with Gregory on Saturday and was told that Gregory had not received any letter from Wisniewski.


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