|Diocese Pays $1.2 Million to Former Altar Boy to Settle Sex Abuse Lawsuit
By George Pawlaczyk
October 23, 2009
BELLEVILLE -- The Catholic Diocese of Belleville has paid $1.2 million to settle a 6-year-old "John Doe" lawsuit filed by a former altar boy who said he was molested by his parish priest.
The settlement, announced Thursday by the diocese, was confirmed by Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster, who said the money has been paid to his client. Negotiations were worked out last week.
It is the first time since the early 1990s when sexual abuse of minors by priests became a widespread public scandal in the Belleville Diocese that the diocese has paid money to a victim as part of a settlement.
The diocese' statement said: "On the occasion of this settlement, The Diocese of Belleville continues to express regret for any instance of sexual abuse of a minor by a member of its clergy. We remain steadfastly committed to our Child Protection Policy and will continue to assist victims and their families in furtherance of that policy."
The settlement dates from 2003 and was filed in connection and about the same time as a similar lawsuit filed by James Wisniewski of Champaign against the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, of Dupo, who was accused of sexually molesting Wisniewski for years.
The $1.2 million settlement also stems from a lawsuit naming Kownacki as the abuser.
Upon recommendation of a diocesan review board, Kownacki was banned more than a decade ago from performing priestly duties because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Wisniewski was awarded $5 million by a St. Clair County jury in August of last year. The diocese has appealed that award to the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon.
Kownacki has stated he will not comment.
"This victim was simply the next in line of the Kownacki victims," Weilmuenster said. "He's not a Johnny-come-lately. He's been there every step of the way for six years."
The attorney said he believes that "widespread outrage" following publicity from the Wisniewski trial may have spurred the diocese to settle this case. During that trial, unrefuted trial testimony and official church documents placed in evidence showed that church officials in the 1970s and 1980s knew that Kownacki had abused underage boys and girls but did nothing to protect the public.
Weilmuenster said his firm represents three other men, including two known only as "John Doe," who have filed suit against the diocese alleging sexual abuse by a priest.
The John Doe awarded $1.2 million was an altar boy at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem about the same time as Wisniewski served as an altar boy, court records show. Like Wisniewski, he claimed in legal arguments that he was entitled to bring the court action despite the fact the normal statute of limitations had long passed. In the case of John Doe and Wisniewski, arguments were successful that the statute of limitations did not start tolling until the victims realized that they had been psychologically damaged by the abuse.
Attorneys for insurance companies representing the diocese "supplied us with copies of policies a foot high," Weilmuenster said, but the attorney added that he could not learn how much of the settlement actually came from insurance.
Diocese spokesman David Spotanski could not be reached.
Weilmuenster said that while a recent Illinois Supreme Court decision concerning the statute of limitations virtually prohibits victims of sex abuse who were born before Jan. 1, 1964, from filing lawsuits who were born before Jan. 1, 1964, he said all victims should still come forward.
The diocese also has urged victims to come forward.
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2625
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