Wisniewski v. Diocese of Belleville, IL.

This is an absolutely mind-twister of a  story. Please read it, weep and hopefully participate in the conversation.  It is a documented true story in the Illinois court system.  DrNick

Wisniewski v. Diocese of Belleville got virtually no press coverage when the trial was held in the circuit court of St. Clair County, Ill., in August 2008. Belleville is a largely rural diocese near St. Louis, and the public by then was tiring of clerical abuse stories.

But the trial still deserves notice, because of the huge award ($5 million) the jury gave the plaintiff, James Wisniewski, because it is only one among a handful of abuse claims against U.S. Catholic dioceses that have been allowed to go to trial, and because the Belleville bishop is still battling to overturn the verdict.

It’s particularly important too because of the shocking admissions that emerged during the trial.

Wisniewski v. Belleville is “almost classic,” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, who attended the trial. “The issues were so clear and the documentation was all there.”

The priest who abused Wisniewski is Fr. Raymond Kownacki, who was ordained for the Belleville diocese in 1960. In 1973, a 16-year-old girl, Gina Parks, contacted diocesan officials and claimed Kownacki, during a two-year period while he was pastor of a small parish in St. Francisville and later in a parish to which he was transferred in Washington Park, abused her sexually, had intercourse with her, even attempted to cause an abortion when she became pregnant.

Belleville Bishop Albert Zuroweste and Msgr. Bernard Sullivan, the chancellor, met with Parks and her parents. Sullivan took copious, detailed notes of her story, which he later typed up.

Parks said Kownacki gave her alcohol, promised to help her get into art school and assured her sex was OK because God “wanted people to love each other.” Parks also said Kownacki spoke of having sex with a girl in Guatemala, where he had served for a time at a mission sponsored by the diocese. Sullivan’s notes indicated the diocese may have already had reports of that relationship and other abusive acts by Kownacki. Parks said twin boys from Guatemala were living in the Washington Park rectory and also involved sexually with Kownacki.

She produced letters the priest had later written in which he told her to blot out her experiences with him and not look at him “as a monster.” The letters were placed in Kownacki’s file in the chancery office but the detailed notes went to an undisclosed location.

Zuroweste and Sullivan then met with Kownacki. Sullivan said, “We told him the whole story without the details,” adding their belief that the priest needed help.

But no help was provided and no investigation of the various charges ever occurred, according to the court records. Nor was there any follow-up with Parks or her parents, even though Canon Law at the time required an investigation.

Several months later in 1973, Kownacki was transferred to St. Theresa parish in Salem. In his letter of appointment to Kownacki, Zuroweste said the diocese was confident that he would find the parish “responsive to [your] pastoral zeal.” In the official appointment to be read at St. Theresa Masses, Zuroweste spoke of Kownacki’s “knowledge, piety, prudence, experience and general character” and urged everyone to give the new pastor “all necessary assistance.” No restrictions or oversight was placed on him.

It was at St. Theresa that Kownacki met James Wisniewski, a quiet, 12-year-old altar boy from an exceptionally devout and obedient family. Kownacki befriended the youth, had him care for the church grounds, and, learning of his interest in photography, bought cameras and set up a dark room in the church basement.

At the trial Wisniewski testified that the priest grew more and more affectionate and eventually introduced him to oral sex. That was the beginning of a long relationship over several years, with both going on out-of-town trips and engaging in sexual activity so frequently that, Wisniewski said, the abuse “became very routine.” Kownacki told the court he felt guilty about what was occurring but never told anyone about it, even after he graduated from high school, went to college and saw little of Kownacki thereafter.

In 1982 a diocesan report (by an unidentified person in the chancery office) was produced with evidence that Kownacki, still at St. Theresa, was actively recruiting other victims, including a freshman boy from the parish. No action was taken, and the report, like Sullivan’s notes, disappeared into an undisclosed location.

Msgr. Joseph Schwaegel, vice chancellor of the diocese, told the court that when the parents of the freshman complained about the pastor’s activities, he began to suspect, as if for the first time, that Wisniewski might also be an abuse victim. But, Schwaegel said, the diocese didn’t want to “go hanging the dirty laundry all over the line,” so he recommended that the parents not let “this get out all over the parish.”

Soon after, Kownacki was assigned as pastor of a parish in Cobden, Ill. Bishop John Wurm, who had succeeded Zuroweste by then, wrote to Kownacki that the appointment was due to his “dedicated priestly services,” adding, “I heartily commend you to all the people of the parish.”

Schwaegel said during the trial that the diocese was giving him “the benefit of the doubt and praying that he truly desires to make a fresh start,” although, he admitted, “everyone at the chancery knew Kownacki was sick and liked to molest children.”

Less than a year later, in 1983, Kownacki was again transferred, this time to the parish in Harrisburg, “in view of your dedicated priestly service,” wrote Wurm. In 1984, Harrisburg parishioners complained that Kownacki was paying two boys $150 per week for doing “absolutely nothing” and as many as five boys were having all-nighters at the rectory.

Msgr. James Margason, who had been appointed diocesan administrator after Wurm died, went to Harrisburg, met with the parish trustees and Kownacki, and concluded that the priest did indeed need help. Kownacki resigned as pastor; the parish was told that his problems were alcohol, some misuse of parish funds and allowing unauthorized persons in the rectory. No further probe of the problems was made.

About six months later, in 1985, the new Belleville bishop, James Keleher, appointed Kownacki pastor of three small parishes. “I am confident,” he told Kownacki, “you will carry out your mission well in building up the Body of Christ.”

In 1986, complaints about teens living in the rectory at one parish surfaced. This time, Kownacki was removed from his assignment and sent temporarily to Hincke House, a residence for ailing and elderly priests.

Then in 1988, Keleher appointed Kownacki to take up residence at St. Henry parish in Belleville; the church has a grade school next door and nearby there is a Catholic high school. No restrictions were placed on his ministry or other activities.

In its summary the court concluded that the diocese “during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s did not investigate any allegations of sexual abuse by Kownacki, did not hold any trials regarding accusations and on no occasion ever disclosed to its parishioners any allegations concerning his molesting of minors.”

In 1993, the Belleville diocese adopted a policy regarding clerical sexual misconduct and established a seven-member review board (four lay member and three priests). Margie Mensen served as review board administrator and continued in that post after Wilton Gregory was named Belleville bishop in 1994.

Although Kownacki’s file did not contain the Gina Parks interview and several other incriminating reports, there was enough there for Mensen to suspect that Wisniewski and others had been the objects of gross abuse. She met with Parks’ parents, eventually recommending to the board that Kownacki be removed from ministry immediately. The board complied and ever since Kownacki has been on administrative leave.

It was not until eight years after Kownacki’s ouster that James Wisniewski appeared on the scene. After leaving Salem, he followed a virtually normal path for years. He finished college with a degree in health care, worked his way up to department head in a local hospital, got married and had two children. He assumed his experience was unique, that no one else had been abused by Kownacki, so he put it all behind him. Then in 2002 when the priest abuse scandal made national headlines, his calm life changed. He grew tense and moody, could not sleep, could not concentrate and felt intense guilt.

One day, almost without intending to, he told his wife Carol about Kownacki; no one had heard his story before. He said he felt he could have or should have done something about the abuse when it started and perhaps spared a lot of other young people from the abuse. Wisniewski consulted a psychiatrist who concluded he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In late 2002 he filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese for “negligence, willful and wanton conduct, fraud and deceit and civil conspiracy” in hopes of getting answers and clearing his mind. The diocese fought the suit for six years, believing it would be thrown out due, among other things, to the statute of limitations. After all, Wisniewski was 12 when the abuse began and now he was 47.

The court ruled otherwise, claiming the statute in this case started running when the wronged person fully realized his injury. In finding the diocese guilty of “fraudulent concealment,” the jury awarded Wisniewski $2.4 million in compensatory damages and an unexpected $2.6 million in punitive damages. The high punitive damages reflected the jury’s contempt for the diocese’s deliberate deception for some 30 years under at least three bishops.

Despite refusal by the appellate court to overturn the decision and a refusal by the Illinois Supreme Court to get involved, current Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton battles on, urging the Supreme Court to change its mind, while interest fees on the original judgment have raised the award to some $6.2 million and growing by $1,250 each day.

A copy of court documents is here: Wisniewski v. Diocese of Belleville [3] (A large pdf file.)


11 Responses to Wisniewski v. Diocese of Belleville, IL.

  1. Speaking-Up says:

    Civil and criminal lawsuits are the only way to expose this
    culture of endemic and systemic abuse and the subsequent conspiracy of silence, secrecy, darkness and cover-ups. Those seminarians who are courageous and outspoken are weeded out during the early years of their Formation, while docility, passivity and humility are encouraged and ‘tested’ during a period of 9 to 13 years, reinforced through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Why does the Formation take so long , when one can earn a Bachelor’s Degree, a Masters and a Ph.D in around 8-9 years in theology, philosophy etc.?

    Recounting the above-mentioned article, the jury found the diocese guilty of ‘fraudulent concealment’ and the plaintiff was given a huge award. When there is documented evidence of Kownacki’s religious and sexual abuse, why is the Belleville bishop still battling to overturn the verdict? Truth found a way to be heard through this courageous and resilient person who managed to turn his life around. The jury considered him a credible witness and his testimony was supported by his psychiatrist’s diagnosis of his condition. He had a stable family-life with a wife and two children as well as a good education and a successful career. He probably had the support of family, friends and community during this trying ordeal. How difficult it must be for sexually-abused persons whose life-styles and medical histories have been plagued with depression, anxiety, low self-worth, fear, confusion, suicide-attempts, addictions, broken relationships, homelessness etc. Who will believe them when they say they were sexually abused as children by people they trusted?

  2. Deanna says:

    I’m never sure whose behavior is more difficult to understand, the abuser or those that know about it and allow it to continue. Both should be removed from public ministry and prosecuted for their offenses. This constant hiding of truth is not helpful and continues to make the Church look as though the principal aim is to protect the system at all costs and not care for its people.

    • drnickmazza says:

      Thanks Deanne for participating. You might want to consider subscribing and becoming a regular participant.

    • Alter boy 1980's says:

      I agree and probably will never understand why I had to be HIS and the CHURCH LEADERS victim…Please spread this story!!! They are Organized Criminals!!! I wish Criminal Prosecutors would go after them, because they are still covering it up…. He, Raymond Kownacki, and those that covered up the abuse have never even faced prosecution from Cannon Law in the church and probably never will.

      • drnickmazza says:

        Thanks Alter boy 1980’s for your powerful sharing. You are correct in rcalling them criminals and I hope all who read this article will share it. You might want to consider subscribing and becoming a regular participant.

  3. survivor's wife says:

    I’m familiar with the Belleville diocese…a friend of ours brought litigation against them in regard to the statute of limitations…it went all the way to the Supreme Court and the victims lost. It was absolutely devastating.

    This is the same situation…I really wanted our friend to get his day in court…to show the world what the Belleville diocese had done to him.

    I’ll share this story with others. The church is still holding that victim captive by fighting it further. Truly another form of abuse and cruelty.

  4. Speaking-Up says:

    Is there not a legal-separation between church and state? Are not judicial matters settled by the legal-systems of independent states? Why then does the Vatican have global jurisdiction over certain civil and criminal cases, when these persons should have been tried under state-law? How is the Vatican allowed to protect criminals without being charged as an accomplice? How are they able to refuse documents that have been subpoenaed? How has this been allowed to continue for so long?

    Extract from a CBC News Article of 2004: ‘The practice of giving sanctuary goes back to biblical times and was codified in the fifth century AD, when Roman law guaranteed that churches could provide refuge, even for criminals.’ End of extract.

    The Church has been a religious sanctuary for centuries, offering the vulnerable protection from unjust laws, discrimination, war etc. But this religious-protection was not meant to provide asylum for ‘criminals from within’. Religious sanctuary has evolved into providing political immunity to those fleeing from justice. The erring clergy are protected by means of transfers, early retirement, extended leave, sabbaticals, treatment centers, confessions and brotherly corrections etc. while their victims are shunned and re-traumatized for ‘speaking-up’ against this travesty of justice.

    • Speaking Up posted this:
      Extract from a CBC News Article of 2004: ‘The practice of giving sanctuary goes back to biblical times and was codified in the fifth century AD, when Roman law guaranteed that churches could provide refuge, even for criminals.’ End of extract.

      I want to share that in a recent bible study I learned that in “biblical times” Jewish law provided “Cities Of Refuge.”

      These “Cities” were designated as a place for a Jew who has accidentally, or in ignorance, killed someone. If it were not for these “Cities” , under Jewish law, the perpetrator would be executed for murder. When the Perp fled to the “City” a judge would decide whether to believe he “knew not what he was doing” and if the judge found in his favor he could return home free of prosecution.

      Methinks what “was codified in the fifth century AD” must have been another “twisting of the scriptures.”

      • Speaking-Up says:

        Thanks Gerald for the info. on ‘Cities of Refuge.’ I don’t think much has changed since biblical times… the absolute power of the judge …. the politics of wealth and position … one shudders to think of the consequences of accidentally killing a person of status.

  5. jessieparks says:


    I am the daughter of Gina Parks’ and I have a few things to say. The fact that RK and the Catholic Church could get away with such a sickness is horrible. My mom, dad, brother, and myself suffered as a result of his actions. It takes a very weak person seeking a form of power to hurt children and those who are of lesser capability.

    My family lost the lawsuit againest RK’s assult because of a “2 year” limitation. At the age of 10 I heard this news and I was devasted. Imagine a little girl learning that her mother was hurt in a way that no person should ever live through….then imagine hearing that the man or “Priest” got to walk away without any true punishment. How could a man that did such devilish acts get to walk away and was allowed to live near a school. Is this what I was suppose to learn about justice? Ha! I laugh at the justice system. It’s seems to only be set up to help those with knowledge of loops holes and money. I guess they see it as, Why should anyone care about an abused child’s life? Was it because it wasn’t recent news or was it just the church trying to cover up their footprints. I know that the United States can’t punish RK enough. The Lord will have a judgement day for this man and I’m sure glad I’m not him.

    In addtion, I am disgusted that United States would have a 2 year limit for such an awful act. Why is there a limit at all? Who, at a youthful age, would know to speak up to a court? Who, at a youthful age, would have the money? Who, at a youthful age, would be able to speak up and tell anyone. Now you tell me, why would there be any limitations? The mental damage alone is enough to stop you from moving forward for years. In my eye’s, what RK did was equivalent to murder. He has hurt MANY people by hiding behind “God”. What a load of ****. These are real people and this is proof that the system isn’t working. Why was my family punished? Can that ever be answered? No, and guess what the damage he caused will always be under repair. Not only did my mom get hurt, but so did my family. Now what happens…….let me guess……Nothing.

    To all the other families. I feel your pain and I will pray for you all. No one deserves the pain created. However, I will say this, the devil will never win with the against the will of Jesus. God Bless you all and I hope someone will see this and help change the system.

    Thank you for your time.

    Jessica Parks

    • DrNickMazza says:

      Jessica, Thank you for the courage to share your pain and the pain of your family with us. I can assure you that this “bad priest” will suffer all eternity for this sin and you and your family will be healed from this earthly pain. You win for eternity and he loses for eternity. God’s justice wins big time.

      I agree that there should be no statute of limitations on these crimes. Many states are changing the laws in this regard. The Catholic Church is not interested in protecting you as much as it protects itself. In the long haul, the church will continue to suffer for its public sin. Trust in God’s justice in this regard as well.

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