Belleville Diocese May Face Second Sex Abuse Trial

By George Pawlaczyk

August 29, 2008

Attorney says second client molested by same priest

BELLEVILLE - A lawyer who won a $5 million verdict against the Catholic Diocese of Belleville on behalf of a sexually abused former altar boy said Thursday he's seeking a trial date for a similar lawsuit involving the same priest.

Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster, who represented James Wisniewski, 47 of Champaign, and his partner Steve Wigginton are handling a second, nearly identical lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by the same priest, the Rev. Raymond Kownacki. The case also would be tried in St. Clair County Circuit Court and again names the diocese as defendant.

The second case is filed under "John Doe" as plaintiff and involves a former altar boy from St. Theresa's Parish in Salem. While Wisniewski was about 13 when he began to be sexually molested by Kownacki at St. Theresa's, the unnamed plaintiff was 12 when the priest allegedly began molesting him in 1979, according to court documents. By that time, Wisniewski has testified, Kownacki had lost interest in him as a target.

Bishop Edward Braxton could not be reached for comment. A diocese spokesman said he will meet with diocesan officials next week concerning allegations from the Wisniewski case, and whether the verdict will be appealed. Braxton was not installed as bishop in Belleville until 2005, years after allegations of a cover-up.

In response to written questions that included whether the $5 million award would be appealed and whether Braxton intends to address parishioners about the trial testimony, the diocese issued this statement:

"When Bishop Edward K. Braxton returns early next week, he will meet with diocesan officials to determine a course of action. We pray that for all of us this is a point from which we can move forward and truly begin to heal." The response came from the Rev. Jack McEvilly, the diocese's vicar general. Braxton's whereabouts could not be learned.

Weilmuenster said documents obtained from the diocese in the Wisniewski case are nearly identical to those in the John Doe case. The documents showed that the diocese knew for decades Kownacki was a violent child rapist and sexual abuser but kept reassigning him to parishes without warning the public.

In response to a reporter's query, Weilmuenster confirmed that the $5 million award is subject to 9 percent interest until it is paid. The attorney said this works out to about $450,000 per year, or $1,232 per day.

Weilmeunster said the evidence during the eight-day Wisniewski trial shows the need for an overall review by diocese officials of the files of all accused priests to ensure that documents that might relate to other sexual abuse victims are not overlooked.

In 1993, the diocese formed a review board of laymen and clergy in response to a series of stories in the News-Democrat detailing sexual abuse of minors by priests. Former Belleville Bishops James Keleher and Wilton Gregory and the board removed 14 priests, including Kownacki, from active ministry.

Weilmuenster said the review board, which still is operating, may not be enough.

"Obviously, this trial has made it clear that the policy that they have in effect right now does not work," he said. " We know that documents regarding Father Kownacki were withheld from the review board. There might be other documents that perhaps have been concealed from Bishop Braxton like there were from Bishop Gregory."

Gregory, now archbishop of Atlanta, testified Tuesday that if allegations were true that diocese officials concealed evidence of sexual abuse against Kownacki and kept reassigning him, then the diocese was responsible for what happened to Wisniewski. This testimony came during cross examination. Gregory was called as a defense witness.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625.


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