Court Rules on Priest's Records
Opinion Says Mental Health Documents Remain Confidential, Even in Child Molestation Accusations

By Ann Sanner
The Associated Press, carried in Springfield State Journal-Register
June 3, 2006

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday that confidentiality laws protect the mental health records of a former priest accused of child molestation - a decision one advocacy group fears will make it harder for abuse victims to sue.

The justices ruled 7-0 that state laws enacted in 1979 and 1988 protect the confidentiality of the documents, even though the records are from before those laws were passed.

The ruling stems from a 2002 civil lawsuit filed by James Wisniewski and an unidentified second plaintiff.

Wisniewski has alleged that the Rev. Raymond Kownacki sexually abused him from 1973 to 1978 when Wisniewski was an altar boy at St. Theresa's church and school in Salem in southern Illinois.

To back up the abuse lawsuit, Wisniewski sought records of the priest's mental health treatment and alcohol-abuse counseling from that period.

Michael Weilmuenster, Wisniewski's attorney, said those materials would show that officials at Belleville's Roman Catholic diocese knew Kownacki was abusing children during the 1970s and did nothing about it.

Attorneys for Kownacki, who was removed from the priesthood in 1995 after similar allegations from another victim, and the Belleville diocese declined to comment Friday.

Weilmuenster said other documents, such as diocese officials' correspondence or notes, may be exempt from the confidentiality laws. He said he plans to have the court rule on whether he can obtain any of those materials as well as whether any other exceptions in the law might apply to the mental health records.

An advocate for abuse victims said he was disappointed by the court's ruling.

"It's one more victory for child molesters and those who hire and supervise them," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"The ruling flies in the face of a long-standing trend by judges making it less hard for child molestation victims to get the truth exposed and predators," he said, adding that the ruling could affect several dozen cases pending in Illinois.

A University of Chicago law professor said the purpose of confidentiality laws is to encourage people who need mental treatment to seek it without fear that their records will later be used against them.

Such records usually are off limits in court unless a person claims mental illness caused their actions or is suing over an incident that caused the illness, said Mark Heyrman, who also chairs the public policy committee for the Mental Health Association in Illinois.

The Supreme Court's decision overturns a 2005 ruling by the Fifth District Appellate Court that ordered the Belleville diocese to turn over the records to Wisniewski and the second plaintiff's attorneys.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.