ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A southwestern Illinois diocese's urging that the state's highest court throw out a $5 million jury award in an alleged priest abuse case drew rebukes Thursday from a regional priests' group and a victims' advocacy organization, both of which urged the diocese to pay up.
The Diocese of Belleville last week asked the Illinois Supreme Court for the relief from the 2008 jury verdict, insisting it is not responsible for telling parishioners about sexual misconduct involving priests including the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, the clergyman at the center of the questioned award.
Calling that legal stance "disastrous," the Southern Illinois Association of Priests insisted Thursday the position violates the diocese's child-protection policy, "common moral sense, and the inherent right of everyone to protect themselves from sexual predators."
"(The diocese) has taken the lowest possible moral ground," said Les Himstedt, a Collinsville man no longer in the active ministry but still a member of the roughly 20-member priests' group. "The fact that the church just doesn't seem to want to resolve this issue and move on is really upsetting to us.
"Our priests are just trying to say we understand how people feel about this, and we don't want our ministry diminished because of this."
The diocese's latest appeal, filed Feb. 16, came more than a month after a Mount Vernon-based appellate court upheld the 2008 verdict favoring James Wisniewski of Champaign.
Wisniewski sued in 2002 in St. Clair County, alleging 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 Kownacki's suspected behavior and quietly shuffled him among parishes without notifying the faithful.
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 Thursday.
After last month's appellate setback, the diocese said it "continues to express regret for any instance of sexual abuse of a minor by a member of its clergy," and that it was committed to adhering to its efforts to protect children from such misconduct.
In a 2008 letter to parishioners, Belleville Bishop Edward 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."
The diocese and its St. Louis attorney did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Thursday.
One of Wisniewski's attorneys has said the diocese, if its appeals fail, would have to pay the $5 million jury award, plus $1.1 million that has accrued in interest.
In its failed challenge decided last month, the diocese had argued that Wisniewski's claims of sexual abuse were past the statute of limitations. But an exception to the time limitations involved whether the diocese engaged in "fraudulent concealment" by not informing parishioners or Wisniewski of numerous reports that Kownacki molested children.
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 on Thursday questioned Braxton's claim that the diocese can't afford the payout and its resistance to an outside review of its finances.
"Making a tremendous issue out of the amount of money is a little like closing the door after they've allowed everything to escape," Himstedt said. "If they would have talked some kind of reasonable settlement up front, we wouldn't have been talking about anything near this amount."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)