Guest View: Appeal for Healing in Belleville Diocese

Belleville News-Democrat
January 17, 2009

Even now, many Catholic bishops deal with the clergy sex abuse issue in a self-serving, destructive manner -- by doing as little as possible.

In the case of Belleville's Bishop Edward Braxton, passivity might be an improvement over aggression. Braxton fights clergy abuse cases in his diocese tooth and nail in court. While clergy sex abuse victims often are connected with excessive legal claims, Braxton is on track to become one of America's most litigious prelates. He's never seen a clergy sex abuse case he hasn't appealed.

In March, a three-judge panel in Mount Vernon ruled favorably for Chris Amenn of Fairview Heights. Now a firefighter, Amenn says he was repeatedly molested as a boy by the Rev. Kenneth Roberts. But Braxton says Amenn should be denied his due because of a legality called the statute of limitations. In October, the bishop appealed the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Months ago, a St. Clair County jury ruled in favor of Jim Wisniewski of Champaign. He was repeatedly abused as a child by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki. A jury ordered Belleville church officials to pay $5 million in the case. Evidence showed staffers at every place Kownacki worked knew of allegations against him but stayed quiet.

In August, the bishop appealed that ruling, too. (Associated legal fees and interest presumably will cost the diocese another $800,000.) Notably, in both cases, the clerics were sued and suspended; not a single church official claims they are innocent.

So what's wrong with asking a judge to overturn a ruling? Wealthy defendants devoted to bottom-line profits often adopt such a scorched earth legal strategy. But an institution modeling itself on Jesus Christ should act differently. In light of faith, justice should be tipped in favor of redressing wrongs to victims, the least among us.

Extending the corporate analogy further, few defendants contradict the wishes of their CEOs. If the top dog says "Let's resolve this and move on," most managers do just that. Not Braxton. Choosing confrontation over reconciliation, he thumbs his nose at his CEO, the pope.

During his recent U.S. visit, Pope Benedict addressed the church's ongoing abuse crisis and cover-ups. Catholics should do everything possible to help victims heal from undeserved trauma, he said. Bishops should "bind up the wounds" caused by pedophile priests.

The church's first CEO, Jesus, had similar, if less explicit admonishments -- "turn the other cheek," help the less fortunate, etc. But Braxton chooses a path more suited to a Wall Street tycoon or military commander: fight to the bitter end, regardless of cost.

A new year brings hope that the scales might be evened in favor of countless, wounded victims. From the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Let's pray that in 2009 justice can be served for Chris Amenn and Jim Wisniewski. By accepting the courts' decisions, Braxton will show acquiescence to the pope and, most importantly, to Jesus.

For the sake of all who need healing and closure, Braxton should make restitution for the crimes and deceit of his priests and church employees.

David Clohessy of St. Louis is the national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He can be reached at


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