Trial Set to Begin Monday in Lawsuit Alleging Sex Abuse by Priest in Belleville Diocese

By Geaoge Pawlaczyk
News Democrat

August 16, 2008

BELLEVILLE - Despite a request filed with the Illinois Supreme Court by the Catholic Diocese of Belleville to throw out a lawsuit alleging that one of its priests sexually abused an altar boy, a civil court trial is scheduled to begin next week in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster said that at a pretrial hearing today, Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto told attorneys for both sides to be ready to pick a jury Monday.

On Aug. 8, attorneys for the diocese asked the Supreme Court for a supervisory order, an unusual procedure, dismissing the case on statute of limitations grounds or that failing, to postpone it. As of this afternoon, the case was still scheduled to begin Monday.

The lawsuit, filed in 2002, alleges that beginning when he was 13, James Wisniewski. of Champaign. was sexually molested by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, 73, of Dupo. at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem from 1973 to 1978. Kownacki was removed from ministry in 1995 by former Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory.

The lawsuit, which claims psychological damage, names the diocese and Kownacki, who could not be reached but has stated he doesn't want to comment.

Cueto has ruled that to overcome time limitation concerns, a jury must first find that the diocese engaged in "fraudulent concealment" of evidence of child sex abuse by priests. If jurors find that concealment occurred, they can then determine after all the evidence is heard whether Kownacki molested Wisniewski.

Copies of depositions of former vicar general Monsignor James Margason and former citizens review board administrator Margie Mensen show that information was withheld from the panel members charged with investigating allegations of priest abuse. Margason, the pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Shiloh, could not be reached for comment. He said recently that he cannot comment on an ongoing legal case.

Margason's testimony showed that he knew the names of youths who were allegedly abused but did not tell panel members, even though he was Gregory's delegate to the review board. Gregory did not turn over personnel files of accused priests except for Kownacki's, the testimony showed.

Mensen testified that when she was administrator to the board from 1993 to 1998, the names of several alleged victims were not made known to her. Mensen stated at the deposition that had she known their names, she would have made sure that counseling was offered. She also testified that the board did not request the personnel files and were satisfied with allowing Gregory to review them and turn over any he thought they should see.

This afternoon, a demonstration of four members of the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests was held outside the chancery offices, which closed at noon.

Dave Clohessy, executive director of the group's organization in St. Louis, said Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton should punish Margason for withholding the names of alleged victims from the review board. Diocesan rules, according to documents filed in the lawsuit, require that the names of any person who claimed to be a victim must be turned over to the review board.

"These were their own rules, their own administrators and their own hand-picked panel," said Clohessy, "yet they kept the names secret. ... This was inexcusable and should not go unpunished."

Braxton could not be reached for comment.

Judy Jones of Woodsfield, Ohio, the director of SNAP's southern Ohio region, said: "We can only speculate on what might have happened if Margason had been honest and shared those abuse reports. Maybe a predator priest might have been criminally charged and gone to jail, where he could not hurt more kids."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625.


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