Thursday, August 28, 2008

"A Long Road Ahead"

In a rare civil judgment against a US local church, an Illinois jury yesterday found the diocese of Belleville guilty of "fradulent concealment" of the records of an abusive priest, ordering the diocese to pay $5 million in damages to a survivor who claimed five years of abuse in the 1970s.

After a heated trial -- which included an appearance on the stand by the diocese's former ordinary, now Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta -- plaintiffs' attorneys said they expected the diocese to appeal the judgment.
James Wisniewski, 47, of Champaign, was awarded damages in a civil trial resulting from a lawsuit he brought in 2002. It alleged that when Wisniewski was a 13-year-old altar boy at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem in 1973, his pastor, Kownacki, began repeated sexual abuse that spanned five years.

The damages to Wisniewski include $2.4 million for compensatory losses including medical costs and emotional duress and $2.6 million for punitive damages.

Following the verdict, which came after nearly five hours of deliberations, an emotional Wisniewski, surrounded by family who supported him throughout the trial, said, "This is a great day for me and other victims of sexual abuse."

Wisniewski, who took the witness stand Tuesday, added, "There's a long road ahead," a reference to mental counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder that two psychiatrists testified he may be need for the rest of his life.

His father, Mel Wisniewski of Salem, said, "I feel that our family can begin to heal now, especially my son Jim, but I think most of all we feel that maybe a whole lot of people out there who were afraid to come out before might have the courage now to come out and look at the problems, and admit the problems and start their healing, too."

The jury found that the diocese had "fraudulently concealed" evidence that Kownacki, 73, of Dupo, was known by church leaders from reports as early as 1973 to be a violent rapist and child sex offender but kept reassigning him to parishes without warning the public. Kownacki has stated he will not comment. He did not attend the trial....

During closing arguments, Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster told jurors that Kownacki was a dangerous pedophile who instead of being sent to jail or confined to a treatment center was "held out by the diocese" as a person who could be trusted around children....

Former Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory testified Tuesday that reports were missing from a personnel file about Kownacki compiled in 1973 and 1982 that stated the priest raped a 16-year-old girl, aborted her fetus, molested twin boys he brought from Guatemala and abused Wisniewski and other unnamed boys at the parish in Salem. Gregory testified he was unaware of the reports when he turned Kownacki's personnel file over to the review board. The reports surfaced during the court-ordered legal discovery process.

Gregory testified that if the allegations that parish officials knew about Kownacki's violent past and still reassigned him, as the evidence showed, then the diocese was responsible for what happened to Wisniewski.

Wigginton repeatedly pointed to former vicar general James Margason, who testified earlier that he knew about a 1973 report concerning several detailed allegations of sex abuse of a minor by Kownacki, but failed to investigate or warn parishioners.

"Shame on you, shame on you," Wigginton shouted at Margason, who sat a few feet away at the defense attorney's table.
Elsewhere on the abuse docket, earlier this month the archdiocese of Chicago settled 16 cases for $12.7 million. As Cardinal Francis George -- the head of the nation's second-largest diocese and president of the US bishops -- said he "ha[d] to accept the blame," the archdiocese also released a 300-page January deposition given by the prelate extensively detailing the Chicago church's response to allegations received as late as 2006.

And just last week, the Missouri diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph paid a $10 million settlement to 47 plaintiffs who claimed abuse by 12 clerics, including Bishop-emeritus Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, a former KC priest.

In addition to the financial aspect, the deal included an unprecedented 19 non-monetary concessions, among them a formal diocesan apology to any survivor who seeks one (with the explicit acknowledgment that the victim was not at fault) and signs to be posted in each diocesan school reading "The abuse of the spiritual, emotional and moral development of young men and women shall not be tolerated."

Each placard will also carry phone numbers for local police and sex-abuse hotlines.

PHOTO: Derek Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat