Man sues Catholic Diocese of Belleville, alleging former senior priest abused him

By John Breslin
MadisCounty Record
August 8, 2019

The Catholic Diocese of Belleville is accused of allowing a priest to be alone with children, one of whom he allegedly abused.

A man identified only as John Doe filed the lawsuit July in St. Clair County Circuit Court, alleging Joseph Schwaegel abused him when he was six years old at Catholic Grade School in Bellville some time after August 1987. Schwaegel was allegedly a senior member of the diocese at the time and was involved in investigations of sexual misconduct by other clergy. 

The Diocese of Belleville was not able to immediately respond to the lawsuit. 

Schwaegel, who died in 2016, is accused of first gaining the plaintiff's trust, then taking him out of class and abusing him on property owned by the diocese. 

The plaintiff alleges the diocese failed to prevent Schwaegel from being alone with children and failing to monitor and supervise his activities. 

This is the second lawsuit that names Schwaegel as an abuser of minors. The first, filed in 1999, was settled out of court.

Schwaegel, who was removed from ministry in 1994, admitted publicly he was a "sex addict" but denied any inappropriate sexual behavior involving minors.

In a 1994 interview with the Belleville News Democrat, Schwaegel said, "I have never hurt a child, nor would I." 

He added that he “never engaged in sexual misconduct,” which he articulated as involving either a minor or non-consenting adult.

Schwaegel was also arrested in 1987 for felony attempted sexual misconduct at a highway rest area in St. Louis County. He pleaded guilty and received a year's probation. He was arrested later for a similar offence.

Plaintiff attorney Gregory Shevlin of Cook Bartholomew, Shevlin and Cook in Belleville, said the plaintiff had not previously come forward to make the allegations.

"(He) has been dealing with this for a while," Shevlin told the Record. "The plaintiff, like all of these victims, is going to be dealing with this for the rest of his life."

Shevlin added that he believes the diocese should he held accountable for the impact on his client's life. The complaint states he is suffering from, among other conditions, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"He would have had a normal life absence this abuse," Shevlin said. 

While Shevlin acknowledges the Belleville diocese, as with others across the country under the spotlight for ignoring the actions of abusive priests, he said it was entirely relative as compared to what it was like for decades.

"I think there has been an atmosphere of looking the other way over decades of abuse," Shevilin said. 

He added that while there may be a more open atmosphere addressing these issues, Pope Francis has called on U.S. dioceses to take more responsibility for their actions.

The complaint also alleges that Schwaegel was involved in covering up the activities Raymond Kownacki, who is allegedly one of the most notorious abusers to serve in the Belleville diocese.

Schwaegel was a witness in a civil suit trial involving Kownacki and against the diocese. James Wisniewski of Champaign accused Kownacki of abusing him over a five year period  in the 1970s.

During the trial, it emerged that in 1988 senior clergy knew of numerous allegations linked to Kownacki, including that he raped a 16-year-old girl and molested twin boys in Guatemala, one of whom he allegedly brought back to Illinois.

Schwaegel, who was named monsignor in the 1970s, was a one time rector of Belleville’s St. Peter’s Cathedral and superintendent of Cathedral Grade School.


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