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The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a Belleville-based diocese's request to throw out a $5 million jury award in an alleged priest abuse case, feeding hope by the victim's attorney that the nine years of litigation may now end.
The high court declined without comment to hear the Diocese of Belleville's February appeal of the 2008 jury verdict favoring James Wisniewski. It was the latest setback in the diocese's quest for relief from the possible payout it claims it can ill-afford.
Wisniewski's attorney, Mike Weilmuenster, called his client "the bravest man I know" and said the possible payout now may have reached $6.3 million, once interest is included.
"My hope is that they finally take care of Jim Wisniewski," Weilmuenster said. "This litigation has been going on for nine years and has been very tough on him, personally taxing on his family. (Wednesday's development) is a victory for all other victims of priest abuse, and I hope other victims out there get some satisfaction, some sense of closure and justice out of this."
Wisniewski of Champaign sued the diocese in 2002 in St. Clair County, alleging that the Rev. Raymond Kownacki sexually abused him dozens of times for five years in the 1970s at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem, Ill., beginning when he was 13. Kownacki, Wisniewski testified, at times showed the then-altar boy a handgun, threatening to kill the child's parents if he ever told.
The lawsuit also claimed the diocese, serving 100,000 Catholics in Illinois' 28 southernmost counties, hid 76-year-old Kownacki's suspected behavior and quietly shuffled him among parishes without notifying the faithful.
The diocese has argued it is not responsible for telling parishioners about sexual misconduct involving priests including Kownacki. In its failed appeals, the diocese insisted Wisniewski's claims of sexual abuse were past the statute of limitations, though an exception to the time constraint involved whether the diocese engaged in "fraudulent concealment" by not informing parishioners or Wisniewski of numerous reports that Kownacki molested children.
The Rev. Edward Braxton, the diocese's bishop, acknowledged in a statement Wednesday that the state's high court had declined to take up its appeal, but that "the diocese continues to express regret for any instances of childhood sexual abuse by a member of its clergy."
Braxton said the diocese would continue adhering to its efforts to protect children from clergy sexual misconduct.
Messages left Wednesday with David Wells, a St. Louis attorney representing the diocese, were not returned.
Kownacki, 76, was removed from priestly duties in 1995 by a diocesan review board. He has not been charged criminally, was not part of the lawsuit and has not spoken publicly about the case. He has an unlisted telephone number in Dupo, Ill., in suburban St. Louis, and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In a 2008 letter to parishioners, Braxton expressed sympathy for victims of sexual abuse by priests without mentioning Kownacki by name and said the potential payout could drain the diocese's coffers and crimp outreach.
Braxton also wrote that while some in the diocese believe Wisniewski should get the money "to put this horrific chapter of our history behind us, there are others who are deeply disturbed because it seems that they, who have done no wrong, are being asked to bear the burdens of the sins of others."
One of Wisniewski's attorneys has said the diocese, if its appeals fail, would have to pay the $5 million jury award, plus at least $1.1 million that has accrued in interest.
Jurors who sided with Wisniewski after a five-day trial found that the diocese engaged in fraudulent concealment.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has questioned Braxton's claim that the diocese can't afford the payout and its resistance to an outside review of its finances.