Guest view: Diocese still does little to combat priest abuse

August 17, 2013 

Five years ago this month, a Belleville jury made a stunning decision. They awarded $5 million to Jim Wisniewski who was sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest for years.

And exactly 20 years ago, Belleville's Catholic Diocese made national headlines as the first of 17 credibly accused child- molesting clerics was removed from ministry.

How have Belleville Catholic officials changed, if at all, in the years since these disturbing developments?

Stunningly little. And their response has largely mirrored the arc followed by the rest of the Catholic hierarchy: First, temporary period of improvement and grandiose promises (while the glare of media attention is intense) then a long period of quiet backpedalling (when public pressure subsides).

In 1993, like a row of dominoes, eight clerics were accused of child sexual abuse and suspended from active duty: the Revs. Jerome Ratermann, James Calhoun, Robert Vonnahmen, David Crook, Robert Chlopecki, Deacon Francis Theis, the Revs. Eugene Linnemann and Edwin Kastner.

The following year, three more were ousted: the Revs. Louis Peterson and Walter MacPherson and Monsignor Joseph Schwaegel. In 1995, the Revs. Raymond Kownacki and Gary Sebescak were suspended and the Rev. Alan Ruppert was removed three years after that.

After seven years of relative calm, the church's abuse scandal began making national headlines in 2002. That led to three more priests being removed: the Revs. Edward Balestrieri, Daniel L. Friedman and William F. Rensing. Friedman was later reinstated.

In most of the cases during the early 1990s, then Bishop James Keleher or then Bishop Wilton Gregory publicly announced the suspensions and had open parish meetings to discuss them. In that sense, the Belleville Diocese seemed a little more transparent and ahead of the curve than most Catholic institutions.

But whatever progress seemed to be happening ended abruptly in 2005, when Bishop Edward Braxton took over. Secrecy and hard-nosed legal tactics were restored.

Now, 20 years later, only two of the predators have been defrocked. Seven, we believe, are still being paid. And none are being housed or watched by anyone, so they are living among unsuspecting neighbors. This needlessly leaves kids at risk.

And the jury's $5 million verdict in the Kownacki trial ended up costing $6.33 million because Braxton insisted on repeatedly -- and unsuccessfully -- appealing for three more years.

It wasn't, however, the only wasteful spending by Braxton. Within days of taking the diocesan reins, he launched an expensive renovation of the bishop's residence. And in 2008, Braxton had to publicly apologize for misusing money in two church funds, for fancy vestments and furniture.

Last month, Braxton quietly went to Nigeria for a church ceremony (as he has apparently done several times in recent years). And he's reportedly renovating his private kitchen even though just seven years ago he spent an estimated $150,000 remodeling his residence.

This mirrors what we've seen across the United States. When the abuse crisis reached a "Belleville like" frenzy in 2002, America's bishops adopted a long and impressive-sounding "zero tolerance" policy that promised openness and transparency in child sex cases. And for a short while, there was real progress.

But very quickly, old habits kicked in with vigor and Catholic officials reverted to ancient, self-serving and irresponsible patterns. It became harder and harder for victims to be deemed "credible" by church staff. It began to take longer and longer to get admitted or accused offenders yanked from their parishes. And the much-touted openness was replaced by more vague terminology when bishops deigned to comment at all on why a priest or deacon was no longer on the job.

A few days ago, we in SNAP hand-delivered a letter to Braxton begging him to stop his second house renovation in seven years and his repeated overseas trips and disclose who's paying for these extravagences.

We urged him instead to start housing and monitoring his predator priests. And we prodded him to post their names and whereabouts on his diocesan website, so that children would be safer, and to reveal how many boys and girls have been sexually assaulted by Belleville priests (as his predecessor did in 2004).

We've written Braxton before, and rarely gotten even the courtesy of a reply. But we'll keep trying. We were around 20 years ago, helping to heal the wounded and protect the vulnerable. And we'll be around for the next 20 years, doing the same, regardless of whether Belleville Catholic officials go forward or keep moving backwards on this on-going scandal.

David Clohessy directs the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. You can contact him by calling 314-566-9790 or email SNAPclohessy@aol.com.

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