Belleville Diocese Leaders Failed to Investigate Priest Sex Abuse, Former Vicar General Testifies

By George Pawlaczyk
August 21, 2008

BELLEVILLE — While reports that the Rev. Raymond Kownacki was sexually molesting minors were piling up, Belleville Diocese bishops and other top church officials failed to investigate and routinely reassigned the priest six times to unsuspecting parishes, former vicar general Monsignor James Margason testified Wednesday.

Margason, now pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Shiloh, was on the witness stand for more than three hours during a civil trial in St. Clair County Circuit Court stemming from a 2002 lawsuit brought by James Wisniewski, 47, of Champaign. Wisniewski claims that beginning in the early 1970s, when he was an altar boy at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem, Kownacki sexually molested him for five years.

The lawsuit, which names the diocese as sole defendant, seeks compensatory and punitive damages that could be in the millions if the plaintiff's attorneys can first convince the jury to find that the diocese engaged in "fraudulent concealment" of sex abuse of minors by priests.

That legal hurdle was set in an earlier ruling by Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto to satisfy statute of limitations and other time limit concerns presented by the defense. Cueto ruled that if the concealment requirement is met, the jury can then deliberate whether Kownacki, 73, sexually molested Wisniewski. Kownacki, of Dupo, who suffered a stroke and cannot attend the trial, has stated he will not comment.

An evidentiary ruling by Cueto on Wednesday opens the way for the plaintiff's attorneys to introduce dozens of documents they say will show that diocesan officials ignored sexual molestation of minors by four other priests who have been removed from ministry; the Rev. Jerome Ratermann, the Rev. William F. Rensing, the Rev. Louis Peterson and Robert Vonnahmen, who is the only diocese priest to be removed from the priesthood,

Under questioning by Wisniewski's attorney, Mike Weilmuenster, of Belleville, Margason testified that the late Monsignor Bernard Sullivan knew numerous details of allegations that Kownacki sexually molested youths in Guatemala, brought twin boys from that country to Illinois and molested one of them and for years raped a 16-year-old girl at a Washington Park parish after befriending her at a church in eastern Illinois. Margason said Sullivan did not investigate or call civil authorities.

High-ranking church officials "aided and abetted" and "enabled" Kownacki to engage in criminal sexual molestation by ignoring reports of his abuse, Weilmuenster told jurors in opening statements, adding at one point, "You know folks, they left a paper trail. It will speak louder than any witness."

Specific bishops mentioned in connection with failing to investigate were John Wurm and Albert Zuroweste, both deceased.

Weilmuenster said it took 22 years to remove Kownacki from unrestricted contact with children, from 1973, when detailed reports of Kownacki's alleged sex abuse became known, to 1995, when he was removed from active ministry.

St. Louis attorney David Wells, who represents the diocese, said in his opening statement that the diocese properly responded to priest sex abuse by setting up a review board in 1993 made up of citizens and priests.

Wells said the board removed 15 priests including Kownacki for abuse of minors.

"What's important here is that the process works," he said, adding, "This is all about money."

While on the witness stand, Margason, who was not in a leadership position when some of Kownacki's alleged abuse occurred, testified that:

• Detailed reports kept by Sullivan, which were kept in a secret archives, were kept from the review board.

• A key 1982 report from a Salem family complaining that their son was molested by Kownacki and mentioning Wisniewski for the first time, was kept from Margason and the review board.

• If diocese officials had acted when the reports about the molestation of one of the twins and the 16-year old girl and others had been investigated, Kownacki might never had met Wisniewski.

While detailed reports from family members and even other priests kept coming in that Kownacki had sexually abused boys and girls, was plying youths with liquor, allowed young boys to sleep over in a rectory and wrote signed love letters asking for underage males to massage him, he kept getting new assignments.

After leaving a diocesan mission assignment in Guatemala following numerous complaints from parents in that country, Kownacki was assigned to a church in St. Francisville in eastern Illinois, and then reassigned to Washington Park, Salem, Harrisburg, Cobden and Valmeyer.

In each case, Margason testified that no investigations were done and parishioners were not warned about Kownacki.

During his testimony, Margason was asked to verify more than 35 documents that were flashed on a screen by Weilmuenster. This included a long-withheld account to Sullivan and Zuroweste about the 16-year-old girl, who stated in a letter that Kownacki continually raped her, threatened to hurt her after she began dating a boy her own age and, after she became pregnant, tried to induce an abortion by squeezing her uterus with his hands.

"He slapped me and called me a whore and a slut because I was sharing my body with" the boyfriend, the girl wrote, according to the report.

Another document showed that Kownacki wrote a letter to a boy stating, "Come up to my bedroom. If I am sleeping or not and massage me. I need it. I love you. Ray."

The Rev. Joseph Schwaegel, who was removed from ministry for a sexual addiction not involving a minor, is expected to testify today.

Schwaegel was involved in writing letters to parents in Salem after they complained that Kownacki had molested their young son.

The parents' letter stated they had done as told by church officials and not said anything. However, after Kownacki claimed in a newspaper story that his reassignment after Salem was due to his desire to work in the Hispanic community in Harrisburg, the parents angrily wrote to Schwaegel that they wanted Kownacki punished.

Schwaegel, according to a letter produced in court, responded that they should "Let bygones be bygones."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at and 239-2625.


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