Deliberations Begin in Priest Sex-abuse Trial

By Nicholas J.c. Pistor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

August 27, 2008

BELLEVILLE Deliberations have begun in a civil trial that pits a former altar boy against the priest he claims abused him and the Belleville Diocese, which apparently moved the priest around to a variety of parishes as complaints againsts the priest mounted.

In closing arguments, an attorney for the former altar boy who filed the lawsuit asked jurors this morning to award $2 million in compensatory damages and $3.5 million in punitive damages -- a total of $5.5 million.

AUGUST 26 2008- Archbishop Wilton Gregory declines to comment after testfying.
Photo by Laurie Skrivan

The abuse is said to have occurred when the Rev. Raymond Kownacki was assigned to a Salem, Ill., parish.

Attorneys for the Diocese argued this morning that the statute of limitations for the alleged victim to sue has run out in the case. The abuse is alleged to have occurred in the 1970s.

Kownacki was removed from active ministry in 1995 but remains a priest and gets retirement benefits.

Our earlier story:

BELLEVILLE -- Former Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory walked into a Belleville courtroom on Tuesday with the same tough confidence that has made him a celebrity in the Roman Catholic church.

"So help me God," he said with extra emphasis while taking the oath, cueing onlookers to the drama that would unfold.

Gregory, widely praised for his openness involving church abuse, coolly testified for more than an hour, saying he didn't know about many of the sexual abuse complaints against the Rev. Raymond Kownacki.

A file folder with two complaints against Kownacki was handed over to a review board investigating sex abuse by priests. Other complaints had been made against the priest, but they weren't in the priest's personnel file, which Gregory said was a violation of the Belleville Diocese policy on sex abuse allegations.

A former altar boy from Salem, Ill., is suing the diocese for allegedly covering up his sexual abuse by Kownacki starting in the 1970s. His attorneys say and unrefuted court documents show the Belleville Diocese knew of prior abuse allegations. The trial began Monday.Michael Weilmuenster, an attorney for the former altar boy, asked Gregory why the documents weren't in the file and who possibly shielded them.

"I didn't know about the records," Gregory responded. He also testified that, to his knowledge, "no one removed anything."

Weilmuenster then asked Gregory if the diocese should be held responsible if it knowingly shifted Kownacki from parish to parish even as evidence grew that he couldn't control sexual urges toward underage boys and girls.

"If all of those things are true, I'd have to agree with you," said Gregory, 60.

Court employees and curious onlookers had spent most the morning gossiping over which door Gregory would enter or whether he would show at all. Courtroom testimony from the church's ranking officials is rare.

Gregory is now archbishop of Atlanta and is said to be a candidate for archbishop of New York.

Gregory headed the National Conference of Catholic Bishops when the Boston priest abuse scandal broke in 2002. He removed Kownacki from active ministry shortly after being installed as Belleville bishop in 1994.

Complaints of sexual abuse against Kownacki dated to the late 1960s, the diocesan documents indicate, and reach from Central America to nearly every corner of Southern Illinois.

"They're disgusting," Gregory declared, referring to diocesan documents showing allegations Kownacki abused not just the altar boy but another boy as well in the Salem parish.

Gregory said he had not seen the documents involving the second boy before he left as bishop. The former altar boy didn't complain to the diocese, but the second boy did and his complaint mentioned the first boy as well.

"We have done as you asked, and not said anything to anybody," the second boy's family wrote in 1982 to Joseph Schwaegel, a former vice chancellor in the diocese.

Gregory said he met with 80-100 victims of alleged sexual abuse during his tenure as Belleville bishop. Attorneys for the ex-altar boy, who is now 47, said the diocese has successfully fought to keep details about those victims from them.

Gregory declined to answer reporters' questions as he left.

Defense attorneys for the diocese say the statute of limitations for the altar boy to sue has run out. They argue that many of the diocesan officials involved in the early complaints against Kownacki are dead, and that the diocese ultimately removed the priest. Kownacki lives alone in a Dupo apartment, getting retirement funds and benefits from the diocese. Attorneys say illness has prevented his attendance at trial.

Tuesday afternoon, defense attorneys recalled the Rev. James Margason, a former Belleville Diocese vicar general in the '80s and '90s.

He testified he knew as early as 1984 about alleged sexual transgressions of Kownacki including information dating back to 1973 that Kownacki raped a girl who later became pregnant and attempted to perform an abortion. The fetus later died.

"(He was removed) 10 years after you knew he was a violent, sexual child molester, right?" asked Steve Wigginton, one of the former altar boy's attorneys.

"Yes," Margason testified.

Closing arguments are scheduled for this morning.

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