$5 Million Verdict Upheld against Diocese in Sex Abuse Case

By George Pawlaczyk

November 1, 2008

BELLEVILLE - A judge on Friday denied a motion by attorneys for the Catholic Diocese of Belleville to set aside a $5 million civil jury verdict against the church for damages suffered by a former altar boy or to order that a new trial be held.

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto issued his one-sentence order that legally clears the way for an appeal to the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon.

As for whether an appeal will be filed, St. Louis attorney David Wells, who represents the diocese, said, "that's up to the diocese."

Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton, who approved filing the motion for a new trial, will make the final decision on an appeal. He could not be reached.

On Aug. 27, after a trial that spanned eight days, a jury awarded James Wisniewski, 47, of Champaign, $5 million in damages and medical costs connected to his 2002 lawsuit that alleged that the Rev. Raymond Kownacki sexually abused him for five years beginning when he was about 13. Wisniewski served as an altar boy at St. Theresa's Church in Salem.

Kownacki, 73, of Dupo, has stated he does not wish to comment. He was removed from active ministry in 1995 by a review board made up of civilians and priests on grounds that he sexually abused minors. He remains a priest and receives retirement pay but cannot wear a priestly collar or perform any church duties.

During trial, Belleville attorneys Mike Weilmuenster and Steve Wigginton presented diocesan documents obtained during the legal discovery process that showed that former Belleville Bishop James Keleher and other top church officials knew that Kownacki was a child rapist of both boys and girls.

The evidence, which went unrefuted, also showed that Keleher and eventually former vicar general Monsignor James Margason repeatedly reassigned Kownacki to unsuspecting parishes even though reports existed of his sexual abuse of children. Keleher has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Wells attempted to prevent the trial from occurring by filing a special motion directly to the Illinois Supreme Court to stop or postpone the trial on grounds that the lawsuit was barred by statute of limitations and other legal time limits. The high court refused to review the matter.

Some of the same arguments concerning the time limit bars were contained in the motion for a new trial.

Wisnieski testified that he didn't realize the extent of psychological damage from the sexual abuse until 2002, when similar cases of sexual molestation of minors in the Archdiocese of Boston became national news.

The damages include $2.4 million for compensatory damages including medical costs and $2.6 million in punitive damages.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625.


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