MOUNT VERNON, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois appeals court panel has upheld a $5 million jury award against a southwestern Illinois diocese to a former altar boy who claimed he was sexually abused by a priest decades ago.

The Mount Vernon-based 5th District Appellate Court, in a 2-1 ruling made public Thursday and first reported by the Belleville News-Democrat, rejected the Diocese of Belleville’s challenge of a 2008 verdict favoring James Wisniewski of Champaign.

Wisniewski sued in 2002 in St. Clair County, alleging 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, concealed 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 Friday.

The diocese, in a three-sentence statement Friday, said it acknowledges the appellate ruling and “continues to express regret for any instance of sexual abuse of a minor by a member of its clergy,” insisting it remained committed to adhering to its efforts to protect children from such misconduct.

The statement gave no indication whether the diocese planned to challenge the matter further. 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.

Messages seeking comment were left Friday with Braxton and the diocese’s St. Louis attorney.

If any future appeals by the diocese fail, one of  Wisniewski’s attorneys said the diocese would have to pay the $5 million jury award, plus $1.1 million that has accrued in interest.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press


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