Saturday, September 27, 2008

From the Abuse Desk

Hit last month with a $5 million civil judgment for "fraudulent concealment" of an abusive priest, the diocese of Belleville has moved for a retrial:
Bishop Edward Braxton has directed the diocese's lawyers to ask St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto for a new trial in the 2002 lawsuit brought by James Wisniewski, 47, of Champaign. He alleged he was sexually abused for five years beginning about age 13 as an altar boy at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem in the 1970s. The priest named was the Rev. Raymond Kownacki who was removed from ministry in 1995 by a diocesan review board for sexual abuse of minors.

Kownacki, 73, of Dupo, has stated he will not comment. The motion also asks for a reduction of the $5 million jury award.

In a letter to parishioners to be read at Mass over the weekend, Braxton said that paying the judgment "would diminish diocesan resources and significantly limit the church's ability to continue to serve our people, our parishes (and) our schools. ..."

If Cueto rejects the request for a new trial, the diocese could then appeal to the 5th Appellate Court in Mount Vernon.

Braxton, who was not bishop until 2005, many years after incidents described at trial, said that besides caring for souls, the Gospel "requires me to be a faithful steward of the resources of the diocese."

Representatives for the diocese could not be reached concerning whether insurance would pay for part or all of the judgment.

Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster, who represented Wisniewski, said he heard during the trial that the diocese' insurance policy might not apply because church officials covered up the sexual abuse. Weilmuenster said an insurance representative attended the trial. Testimony showed that the diocese earns $3.5 million per year in interest on investments.

Bill Schroeder, a law professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said it is common for trial judges to reduce jury awards "because damages are hard to quantify."

The 49-page new trial motion filed by St. Louis attorney David Wells brings up most trial issues including whether Wisniewski, of Champaign, was barred by time limit rules from bringing the lawsuit.

Testimony that Wisniewski and other youths were sexually abused by Kownacki was unrefuted. Testimony that top church officials including former Belleville Bishop James Keleher knew about Kownacki's sex crimes and continued to transfer him from parish to parish also went unchallenged.

Weilmuenster, who handled the trial along with his partner attorney Steve Wigginton, said: "These are the same arguments they made before and during the trial.

"This is the precursor to an appeal. You file a post-trial motion and once that post-trial motion has been ruled on by the trial court, you have to file a notice of appeal with the appellate court."

Braxton could not be reached for comment. Wells also could not be reached for comment.

Braxton's letter to parishioners also urged them to pray.

"Pray for those who have suffered abuse and for their families. Pray for the people of the diocese who are distressed by these sad events. Pray for the priests who continue to serve you faithfully. Pray for those who have been removed from ministry. And pray for me as well," the letter stated.

Frank Flinn, adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism published last year, rejected Braxton's argument against paying the judgment outright.

"It's a false argument," Flinn said, "Had they been genuinely concerned of the finances of the diocese, then the chancellor along with the bishop would have removed this person from his cycle of pedophilia in the first place."

Representatives of the St. Louis-based church watchdog group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, also criticized Braxton's decision.

"Rubbing salt into fresh, deep wounds. That's the only way to describe Braxton's selfish decision to appeal this verdict," said Barbara Dorris, the organization's outreach director.

"Braxton should be ashamed of himself, and Catholics should be ashamed of him," she said, adding, " Remember, no one disputes that Kownacki is a serial predator or that Catholic officials knew this, kept it secret, and repeatedly moved him to unsuspecting parishes where he molested again. That's been admitted or proven in court. Braxton's only defense is claiming that 'The victim waited too long.'"

The group's St. Louis executive director, Dave Clohessy, said, " A hostile move like this can either drive deeply wounded victims further into hopelessness or motivate them into coming forward, getting help and exposing predators. We hope victims will choose action over depression."
And elsewhere, in what's become a painful Saturday ritual in the First State -- where a two-year "window" suspending the civil statute of limitations remains open 'til next summer -- the morning news reports that diocese of Wilmington was served with two more cases yesterday, adding to a docket already numbering past 20 suits, all told.

Both alleging abuse by the same priest, who died in 1998, the male plaintiffs claimed that the misconduct took place in two of the cleric's parish assignments in the 1950s.

At his installation earlier this month, the Delaware church's new head, Bishop Fran Malooly, apologized that "the innocence of too many of our diocese’s children was stolen by the very individuals whose duty it was to protect and safeguard it.

Addressing the victims directly, Malooly "apologize[d] for the innocence that was stolen from you by Catholic clergy and others representing our Church."

"You had more than your innocence stolen from you--many of you also had your faith taken away," he said.