BELLEVILLE — Raymond Kownacki, whose history of years of sexually abusing children was brought out in testimony during a 2008 civil trial that ended with a $5 million judgment against the Diocese of Belleville, has been booted from the priesthood by Pope Benedict XVI.
According to a Jan. 25 "Official Statement" from Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton, Benedict's decree "means that Mr. Kownacki is no longer a member of the clerical state and has been dispensed 'pro bono Ecclesiae,' -- for the good of the church."
Diocese spokesman the Rev. John Myler could not be reached for comment. Braxton does not comment to local media.
Kownacki, 78, who resides in a nursing home in St. Louis County, is the second priest from the diocese to be removed from the priesthood following allegations of sexual abuse of minors. In 2007, Benedict removed Robert J. Vonnahmen, a former priest who was alleged by a diocesan review panel to have abused boys at a church-run camp in the 1970s.
Kownacki has stated in previous years that he did not wish to comment. He was never in open court as a witness or spectator.
"Kownacki abused and impregnated a teen, tried to perform an abortion, and assaulted dozens of kids," said Dave Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. This was a reference to allegations involving a Washington Park church in the mid 1970s where he raped his teenage housekeeper and then tried to abort her with his hands.
A federal lawsuit against Kownacki regarding these allegations failed because of the statute of limitations.
"Still, it took Catholic officials almost 20 years to defrock him after he'd already been ousted from ministry. These facts clearly show how little Belleville and Vatican staffers care about vulnerable kids and wounded adults," Clohessy said.
About a dozen other living priests who were removed from priestly duties in the mid 1990s but not from the priesthood following articles in the Belleville News-Democrat, have cases for total removal before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. They cannot minister or wear a priestly collar but continue to receive church retirement benefits.
"It's 40 years and a dozen abused kids too late," said Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster, who, with his former law firm partner Stephen Wigginton, successfully obtained judgments against the diocese in four civil suits involving Kownacki, including three where the minor victim was not identified. Wigginton is now the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois.
The total payoff is at least $7.5 million, according to court documents. However, in at least two of the settled cases, the parties agree not to reveal the amount of the judgment.
The most prominent of these lawsuits involved former altar boy James Wisniewski, whose $5 million judgment after trial more than four years ago grew to $6.33 million with interest when the diocese paid it off in August 2011.
"It's better late than never," Weilmuenster said. "Given this guy's age, his true judgment will be coming soon."
The Kownacki trial not only focused on the allegation of predatory sexual abuse of minors by the former priest, which went unrefuted, but brought to light many allegations of a cover-up by former high-ranking diocesan officials. Braxton was not assigned to Belleville during the time Kownacki was still a priest assigned to minister to a parish.
Testimony during the trial concerning claims documented in church memorandums showed that the leadership of the diocese knew of Kownacki's crimes, but transferred him to parishes without warning parishioners that their children could be in danger.
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at email@example.com or 618-239-2625.