Jury Awards $5 Million

By Nicholas J.c. Pistor
Louis Post-Dispatch

August 28, 2008

BELLEVILLE A St. Clair County jury on Wednesday evening ordered the Belleville Diocese to pay $5 million to a former Salem altar boy who claimed he was sexually abused by a priest decades ago.

The verdict is believed to be the largest jury award in a local priest-abuse case.

The jury found that the diocese conspired to hush sex abuse allegations and allowed the priest free rein in the diocese even after, court records show, church officials knew he couldn't control his sexual urges toward young boys and girls.

According to unrefuted documents shown in court, the diocese moved the priest from parish to parish as claims of sexual misconduct came from nearly everywhere the priest went.

The Rev. Raymond Kownacki allegedly began sexually abusing the boy after being moved from another parish following allegations he raped a 16-year-old girl, who later became pregnant, and attempted to perform her abortion.

Sarah Wiesner, a juror from O'Fallon, Ill., said the actions of the diocese were "appalling" and added, "They kept placing Father Kownacki in the parishes."

The diocese earns about $3.5 million a year just on its investments, according to court documents. That prompted the former altar boy's attorneys to ask for $3.5 million in punitive damages along with $2 million in compensatory damages.

The jury wound up awarding $2.6 million in punitive damages and $2.4 million in compensatory damages. The Belleville Diocese has insurance to cover such a judgment, but it was unclear what it might pay.

The verdict follows a long line of similar verdicts involving Catholic clergy around the country but is the first such case in the Belleville Diocese. Often, such cases are settled quietly out of court.

Some cases, like the one in Belleville, do come before a jury, however. In St. Louis, for example, a jury in 1999 awarded $1.2 million to an abuse victim from the St. Louis Archdiocese but that verdict was later overturned by the Missouri Court of Appeals.

The Rev. Joseph Schwaegel, a former diocesan official in Belleville, testified at the trial that the allegations were hushed and the victims were treated as "dirty laundry."

Complaints of sexual abuse against Kownacki dated to the late 1960s, court documents indicate, and came from Central America to nearly every corner of Southern Illinois. It took more than 20 years for Kownacki to be removed from active ministry, according to the internal memos shown to the jury.

Kownacki, 73, was removed from active ministry in 1995 but remains a priest and receives retirement benefits. He lives in a brick apartment building two blocks from Dupo High School and told a reporter on Wednesday that he had suffered a stroke recently, something corroborated by courtroom testimony.

A short man with thinning, dark hair, Kownacki handed the reporter a typed sheet through the door of his home that said: "I have had a stroke and I have trouble talking so that you can understand me. I also sometimes have trouble reading or writing."

Asked about the allegations made against him, he added, "I don't know what you're talking about."

He said he lives alone and complained again about his health. Pointing to his heart, he said: "It hurts. It hurts me."

Kownacki was removed by former Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, who testified at trial that he had not seen several documents showing abuse allegations against Kownacki.

Wiesner, the one juror who spoke to reporters, said she believed Gregory's testimony.

A team of attorneys representing the diocese from the St. Louis law firm of Thompson Coburn left the courtroom after the verdict and declined to comment to reporters. They repeatedly argued that the statute of limitations had run out, and most of the officials involved in any conspiracy were dead.

Because the law firm wasn't talking, it wasn't clear whether the diocese would appeal.

Diocese officials could not be reached to comment.

Some jurors embraced the former altar boy as they left the courtroom. At least two of them shook his hand.

The former altar boy, now 47 and living in Champaign, Ill., fought back tears afterward and said he was glad the trial was over. "Today is a great day for victims," he said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, attended the trial. He added, "I hope this man's heroism will inspire other victims to come forward."

The verdict also was a major victory for two Belleville lawyers, Steve Wigginton and Michael Weilmuenster. The two filed the suit six years ago.

"I asked jurors to punch the Belleville Diocese with a right hook," Wigginton said. "They delivered."

Rick Pierce of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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