Catholic diocese challenges award to abused altar boy

June 19, 2011 

Attorneys for the Catholic Diocese of Belleville contend that if a jury verdict awarding $5 million to a former altar boy sexually abused by a priest is allowed to stand, the religious liberty of Illinois citizens could be undermined.

But Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster, who represents the former altar boy, James Wisniewski of Champaign, said the diocese's second attempt to get the Illinois Supreme Court to agree to consider an appeal of the St. Clair County verdict has nothing to do with religious freedom.

Weilmuenster said Bishop Edward Braxton's recent letter to parishioners that their religious freedom could be eroded if the judgment stands is "propaganda."

Braxton, who does not comment to local reporters, could not be reached. He was not the bishop in Belleville when the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, in the 1970s, according to trial testimony, sexually abused a young girl and several boys, including Wisniewski.

The judgment that must be paid to Wisniewski, unless the verdict is reversed, totals about $6.3 million, with interest that accumulates at about $1,250 per day.

Wisniewski, 50, testified during the 2008 civil trial that he was sexually molested for years beginning about 1973 when he was 13 by Kownacki, then the priest at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem. Kownacki, 76, who has stated he will not comment, was removed from ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct. He was named as a defendant in another sexual abuse lawsuit filed by Weilmuenster that resulted in a $1.2 million payment by the Belleville Diocese in 2009.

Testimony in the Wisniewski case stated that the diocese knew that Kownacki was dangerous but continued to transfer him to other parishes without warning parishioners.

In legal documents filed Wednesday with the Illinois Supreme Court, St. Louis attorney David Wells, who represents the diocese, argued that a 5th District Appellate Court ruling announced in January upholding the $5 million verdict "exposes the citizens of Illinois to gross violations of their religious liberty." He contends that the appellate court ruling improperly held the diocese to a higher standard than law allows simply because it is a religious organization.

In a 19-page petition, Wells stated that the verdict and appellate court ruling was based on an unconstitutional premise: that the diocese had a duty to protect and warn Wisniewski about Kownacki based solely on religious doctrine and belief.

"A court interpreting and applying religious doctrine violates both Illinois and federal guarantees of religious liberty," Wells' petition stated.

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