BELLEVILLE, Ill. -- A Roman Catholic priest whose decades-old molestation of a former altar boy led to a $6.3 million payout in an Illinois lawsuit has been kicked out of the priesthood by Pope Benedict XVI.
In a statement published in the Diocese of Belleville’s newspaper, Bishop Edward Braxton said 78-year-old Raymond Kownacki’s defrocking took effect Jan. 11 as part of a papal decree that called the move “for the good of the church.”
“It was a complete surprise. I had no idea it was in the works,” said Mike Weilmuenster, the attorney who successfully sued the diocese on behalf of James Wisniewski, who said he was repeatedly molested by Kownacki for years during the 1970s.
“But I’m pleased it’s finally been done—better late than never. But it makes you wonder what took so long, and why now,” Weilmuenster said, then pointing to Kownacki’s advanced age. “He’s 78, and his true judgment is coming right soon.”
Kownacki, who lives in a suburban St. Louis nursing home, has declined media requests for interviews. He has not faced criminal charges linked to sexual misconduct.
Kownacki was not part of the Wisniewski lawsuit that targeted the diocese. He was removed from priestly duties in 1995 by a diocesan review board.
Wisniewski sued in 2002, alleging that Kownacki sexually abused him dozens of times over five years at St. Theresa’s Parish in Salem, Ill., beginning when he was 13. The priest, Wisniewski testified, at times showed him a handgun, threatening to kill the child’s parents if he ever told.
The lawsuit also claimed the diocese hid Kownacki’s suspected behavior and quietly shuffled him among parishes without notification.
Wisniewski won a $5 million jury award in 2008 in Illinois’ St. Clair County, just east of St. Louis. Three years later, Wisniewski received more than $6.3 million in checks from the diocese and its insurer, reflecting the jury award and the interest that accrued as the diocese appealed the verdict.
A separate lawsuit against Kownacki, filed in 2003 by a man identified as John Doe, alleged that victim mowed the lawn at the Salem parish, where Kownacki was pastor from 1979 to 1986. That case was settled in 2009 for $1.2 million.
Monsignor Rev. John Myler, a spokesman for the Belleville diocese that serves 100,000 Catholics in Illinois’ 28 southernmost counties, called Kownacki’s defrocking “part of a long, terrible ordeal.” But he declined additional comment beyond Braxton’s statement.