Bishop Braxton Expresses 'Deep Sorrow' for Sex Abuse by Belleville Priests

September 10, 2008

[with link to the bishop's letter of apology]

BELLEVILLE — In his first public comment since a jury awarded $5 million to a former altar boy sexually abused by a Belleville priest, Bishop Edward Braxton wrote to parishioners: "I join with my fellow bishops in expressing deep sorrow to those who have suffered because of the actions of priests."

Braxton, who was not installed as bishop until years after allegations of a diocesan cover-up of the abuse, wrote the one-page letter dated Sept. 5 to priests to be read at Mass. It does not address the concerns of citizens groups who have urged him not to allow an appeal of the Aug. 27 jury verdict against the diocese.

Bishop Braxton's letter of apology

The award resulted from a 2002 lawsuit brought by former altar boy James Wisniewski, now 47, of Champaign, who said he was sexually abused by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki for five years beginning when he was 13. Kownacki, of Dupo, has stated he will not comment.

Evidence at the trial showed that some top diocesan officials, including former Belleville Bishop James Keleher, knew about Kownacki's sexual abuse of children for decades but did not warn the public or call police. Instead, they reassigned him to unsuspecting parishes.

Referring to that evidence, Braxton's letter stated: "I assure you I will never assign a priest to your parish whose sexual abuse of a minor is known to me."

Braxton stated he followed the trial on a daily basis but did not attend the proceedings in St. Clair County Court. He wrote that during the three years he has been bishop in Belleville, "I am unaware of any allegations against any member of the clergy of the diocese suggesting they have abused a minor during this period of time."

The News-Democrat's written requests to the diocese asking whether it will appeal the verdict and seeking Braxton's response have gone unanswered.

Former vicar general Monsignor James Margason, who according to trial evidence knew about Kownacki's sexual abuse of children and participated in decisions to reassign him, on Tuesday closed the door of the Shiloh rectory without a word when a reporter sought his comment.

Spokesman and civilian chancellor Dave Spotanski did not return repeated calls. The Rev. Jack McEvilly, vicar general for the diocese, could not be reached.

Braxton said his letter to priests and nuns was not meant to address any further legal decision or serve as any statement of any change in policy.

The diocese has a review board of laymen and priests, headed by Belleville attorney Mike Nester, which investigates allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Nester did not return calls. In the early 1990s, the board removed 15 priests, including Kownacki.

After reading Braxton's letter, Barbara Dorris, a director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) which has called on Braxton not to appeal the verdict, said "Lofty platitudes mean nothing when contradicted by hard-ball legal tactics. Braxton's words are meaningless unless matched by his deeds."

Call To Action, a national group of about 25,000 Catholic dissidents who have sometimes clashed with church authorities on doctrinal and disciplinary matters, issued a statement Tuesday also calling on Braxton to direct the diocesan legal team not to appeal.

Organization spokesman Nicole Sotelo wrote in a letter to Braxton that he should "respond to the recent trial, not with a legal appeal, but with a pastoral approach towards healing."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at and 239-2625.


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