Justices: Statute didn't run out in priest abuse case against Belleville Diocese

Steve Korris Jan. 25, 2011, 9:45am


MOUNT VERNON – James Wisniewski proved it took more than 25 years to discover the injury in a priest's sexual abuse, Fifth District appellate judges decided on Jan. 13.

Justices Bruce Stewart and Thomas Welch affirmed a $5 million verdict against the Diocese of Belleville, finding a statute of limitations didn't run out.

"The evidence supported a finding that the specific injury that Wisniewski suffered was post traumatic stress disorder that first manifested itself in January of 2002," Stewart wrote.

He found sufficient evidence for a special relationship creating a duty on the part of the Diocese to contact Wisniewski about Raymond Kownacki's abuse.

"The Diocese, however, remained silent," Stewart wrote.

He wrote that the Diocese's continued silence "was the equivalent of an affirmative act of fraudulent concealment of Wisniewski's claim against it."

He and Welch rejected other arguments of the Diocese, including a claim that jurors and St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto interfered with freedom of religion.

"It is without question that the state of Illinois deems such conduct as harmful, and neither the circuit court nor the jury was required to interpret Catholic religious doctrine to reach that conclusion," Stewart wrote.

"The first amendment simply does not shield the Diocese from liability from knowingly installing a child sexual abuser as a parish priest under the facts of this case," he wrote.

Justice Stephen Spomer dissented, deploring the Diocese's conduct but concluding that Wisniewski's claim was time barred in 1991.

"He always remembered that he was abused, that the abuse was harmful, that Kownacki was his abuser, and that Kownacki was a representative of the Diocese," he wrote.

Wisniewski grew up in Salem, worshiping with his family at St. Theresa's church.

In 1973, the Diocese appointed Kownacki, age 38, as priest at St. Theresa's.

Bishop Albert Zuroweste wrote to the parish that he had confidence in Kownacki's knowledge, piety, prudence, experience and general character.

Zuroweste commanded all to recognize him as pastor and grant him all necessary assistance.

He didn't tell them Kownacki had disgraced himself with boys in Guatemala and a girl in St. Francisville.

Stewart wrote, "No one from the Diocese restricted or supervised Kownacki's contact with the minor children of St. Theresa's.

Wisniewski, age 12, started taking care of the grounds around the church.

He became an altar boy at the encouragement of his mother, Marcy Wisniewski.

After a few months, Kownacki invited him and another boy to watch movies at the rectory and spend the night.

"Kownacki plied them with alcohol," Stewart wrote.

After the other boy fell asleep, Kownacki rubbed Wisniewski's shoulders, kissed his neck, led him into his bedroom, and performed oral sex on him while masturbating.

"Wisniewski did not say anything to his parents or anyone else the next day because he was afraid he would get in trouble," Stewart wrote.

Abuse became routine, with Kownacki telling Wisniewski it relieved his stress, it proved he was growing up, the church condoned it, and other priests did it.

"At times when Wisniewski resisted Kownacki's molestation, Kownacki threatened to tell everyone that Wisniewski was gay, to ruin Wisniewski's parents' business, and to force his family to move out of town," Stewart wrote.

"At first the abuse occurred on a weekly basis, but as the years went by and as Wisniewski became an older adolescent, the abuse tapered off and eventually ended by the time he was a sophomore or junior in high school," he wrote.

"Wisniewski testified that many times Kownacki was drunk when he made the threats and that Kownacki was mean when he was drunk," he wrote.

He wrote that Wisniewski moved to Champaign and blocked the abuse out of his mind, though he didn't forget it.

"Kownacki performed the marriages of Wisniewski's brother and two of his sisters," Stewart wrote.

In 1982, the Diocese prepared a report on a boy's allegations of misconduct and kept it in a secret place instead of Kownacki's personnel file.

Diocese vice chancellor Joseph Schwaegel met with the parents and asked them to keep quiet and let the diocese resolve it.

The Diocese assigned Kownacki to Cobden, and the local paper in Salem reported that he asked bishop John Wurm for the assignment.

The boy's parents wrote to Schwaegel, "Here is a man, a priest who committed a very serious sin and instead of being sorry and leaving quietly, he pads it by lying."

Schwaegel answered that they had been so kind that he gave Kownacki the benefit of the doubt and prayed he truly desired to make a new start.

Wurm transferred him again in 1983, to Harrisburg, and trouble followed.

"Kownacki had two boys living in the rectory, and one of them had walked through a plate glass door," Stewart wrote.

Monsignor James Margason went to Harrisburg, where trustees told him the area was not Catholic and Kownacki was damaging their reputations.

Margason told the boys to leave the rectory, and he offered Kownacki medical help.

Kownacki accepted the offer, resigned, and took sick leave.

In 1985, bishop James Keleher assigned him to three parishes in Monroe County.

Soon, his housekeeper advised the Diocese that boys lived in the rectory and people were going to Waterloo for mass because of what they heard.

Margason talked to the boys but not their parents.

The Diocese assigned him to a cloistered convent and then to St. Henry's parish in Belleville, next door to St. Henry's grade school.

In 1994, bishop Wilton Gregory announced he would review personnel files to ensure that all allegations of abuse were disclosed to a new review board.

Kownacki's file, however, did not contain the 1973 report on the St. Francisville girl or the 1982 report on the Salem boy.

Review board administrator Margie Mensen found the facts anyway, tracking down parents and concluding Kownacki should be removed from active ministry.

Gregory agreed, and announced his action at a press conference and in a Diocese newsletter article.

"Kownacki was not defrocked or punished," Stewart wrote.

"He collected retirements from the Diocese, and at the time of trial, he had suffered a stroke but was living by himself in an apartment in Dupo," he wrote.

Wisniewski meanwhile married, and he and wife Carol raised a son and a daughter.

In 2002, he heard news about priests in Boston molesting children.

"Thoughts of his own abuse continually came up in his mind," Stewart wrote.

"In the past he had successfully put those thoughts aside, but now he could not suppress the memories," he wrote.

He had trouble sleeping and when he slept, he had nightmares.

One night, Carol said, "Father Ray never did anything to you, did he?"

Stewart wrote, "Wisniewski intended to go to his grave never saying anything to anyone about Kownacki's molestation, but Carol's question caught him off guard."

They spent most of the night crying, talking, and trying to make sense of it, he wrote.

Wisniewski's revelation affected the family and their faith, he wrote.

He sought help from psychiatrist David Kopacz, who prescribed medicine to ease his anxiety and help him sleep.

Wisniewski told Kopacz he was looking into how much the Diocese knew about Kownacki before assigning him to Salem.

Wisniewski retained an attorney and sued the Diocese.

At trial, six years later, Kopacz told jurors Wisniewski was programmed to believe everything Kownacki said.

A psychiatrist Stewart identified as Dr. Peterson testified that the situation set up a power imbalance between Kownacki and Wisniewski.

"Peterson testified that Wisniewski did not initially appreciate or know that he was harmed because the priest overwhelmed him and because Wisniewski came to believe that he was actually acting in a positive way to help the priest," Stewart wrote.

Peterson testified that Wisniewski found comfort in believing he was the only one Kownacki abused, he wrote.

Jurors awarded $2.4 million in compensation and $2.6 million in punitive damages, and Cueto entered judgment.

On appeal, the Diocese denied it engaged in fraudulent concealment.

It argued it made no misrepresentation directly to Wisniewski and didn't prevent him from discovering a claim.

It argued it didn't have a special relationship with him or occupy a position of trust.

"We disagree," Stewart wrote, adding that Cueto properly submitted the question of special relationship to jurors.

"The agents and employees of the Diocese were held in high esteem in Wisniewski's family and were placed on a pedestal, and the Diocese itself fostered, promoted, and encouraged this trusting relationship by urging its parishioners to trust their priests'' knowledge, piety, prudence, experience and general character," he wrote.

"The Diocese successfully garnered this trust with Wisniewski's parents and with Wisniewski, and it is this very trust that Kownacki exploited in order to sexually abuse Wisniewski for years," he wrote.

"When the Diocese learned of Wisniewski's sexual abuse, it remained silent, and Wisniewski had no reason to suspect that the Diocese betrayed his trust and confidence," he wrote.

"Under these circumstances, we will not second guess the jury's verdict," he wrote.

Michael Weilmuenster of Belleville led Wisniewski's legal team, along with former partner Stephen Wigginton, now U.S. attorney.

Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Philip Rarick of Troy also represented Wisniewski, along with Frederick Keck and Brian Manion of Weilmuenster's firm.

David Wells and Catherine Schroeder, of Thompson Coburn in St. Louis, represented the Diocese.

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