Supreme Court Upholds Decision to Toss Lawsuit That Alleges Sexual Abuse by Priest

By George Pawlaczyk
September 24, 2009

BELLEVILLE -- An Illinois Supreme Court decision made public Thursday upheld a local judge's decision to toss out a civil lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a priest in a Belleville parochial school 25 years ago.

The lawsuit, filed in 2003 by St. Louis firefighter Chris Amenn of O'Fallon, cannot now go forward, said St. Paul, Minn., attorney Mike Finnegan, a member of a nationally known law firm that has filed hundreds of lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by priests. The firm represents Amenn.

Attorneys connected to local and national priest sex abuse of minors law suits say the top court's decision will make it difficult for victims now in their mid 40's or older to pursue cases, because of the ruling's scope. But the attorneys urged all persons claiming to have been abused to still come forward.

The priest named in the court papers in the Supreme Court case is the Rev. Kenneth Roberts, who was prohibited years ago from performing Mass or carrying out other priestly duties after allegations of sexual abuse of minors were made to various Catholic church officials, according to court documents.

"This is pretty much it for this case," Finnegan said of the Amenn lawsuit.

Diocese spokesman David Spotanski forwarded the following response from Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton: "The Diocese of Belleville continues to express regret for any instance of sexual abuse of a minor by a member of its clergy. The Diocese of Belleville is committed to adhering to the Child Protection Policy (of the Catholic Church) and will continue to assist victims and their families in furtherance of that policy and its ministry."

A statement concerning the decision from the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which represents all six Catholic dioceses in Illinois, stated in part, "The Catholic community will continue to work to bring healing and justice to the survivors of child sexual abuse."

Mike Weilmuenster, a Belleville attorney who helped represent James Wisniewski who won a $5-million judgement in St. Clair County Court from the Belleville Diocese in August of last year, said the Supreme Court decision will not affect this case and will probably not affect three cases his law firm has ongoing regarding similar claims of sexual abuse. Weilmuenster said that in the Wisniewski case, which is on appeal before the 5th Appellate Court, a different underlying factor has been challenged by attorneys for the diocese. And that is whether "fraudulent concealment" of the abuse by the diocese allows a case to be brought after the statute of limitations has expired.

Weilmuenster agreed that for persons of a certain age -- mid 40s or older -- bringing lawsuits for sexual abuse by a priest will be difficult and maybe impossible. But he urged all persons to come forward who believe they might have been abused.

"This will make it much more difficult for some persons abused by a priest to get their day in court," he said.

Barbara Blaine, the founder and national president of the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests, said, "This decision protects perpetrators of sexual abuse of children."

The Supreme Court's decision in the Amenn case overturned an earlier ruling by the 5th Appellate Court in Mount Vernon that reinstated the lawsuit. The local judge is Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto's, whose original decision tossing the case was upheld by the ruling announced Thursday.

As for whether all civil lawsuits in Illinois alleging sexual abuse by priests that occurred long enough ago as to make them barred by the statute of limitations are now prohibited, Finnegan, the Minnesota lawyer, said that in some cases lawsuits could still be filed based on a 2003 revision of the Illinois Child Protection Act. But he too agreed that for plaintiffs who are now in their mid 40s, the Illinois Supreme Court decision effectively prevents lawsuits from being filed by these persons.

Jeff Anderson, Amenn's lead attorney, said while persons now in the mid 40s who were abused as minor will have a difficult time successfully suing, "It is important for them to come forward ...We will find ways of dealing with this decision or working around it."

David Wells, who represents the Diocese of Belleville, one of three defendants in the case, could not be reached for comment.

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