The Diocese’s History of Handling Claims of Child Sex Abuse by Clerics
In a February 13, 2023 article “A priest scandal rocked the Belleville Diocese 30 years ago. How have things changed?” the Belleville News-Democrat outlines how “18 clergy [were] removed from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville” as a result of credible allegations of child sex abuse. Absent from the News-Democrat’s article is mention of how diocese leadership, including multiple bishops, knew of, and participated in, the transfer of a known child sex abuser from parish to parish, over a course of decades, all illustrated by the diocese’s bishops’ mishandling of Father Raymond Kownacki.
Beginning in 1974, James was sexually abused at the hands of Kownacki, a priest in the Diocese of Belleville. Kownacki abused James more than 50 times while the boy was between the ages of 12 and 17. In October 2002, James filed a lawsuit against the diocese, alleging it knew Kownacki had sexually abused other children before transferring him to Saint Theresa in Salem, where he abused James. At trial, it was revealed the diocese learned Kownacki was a child sex abuser as early as April 1973, when then Bishop Albert Zuroweste and other diocesan officials met with a young girl, Gina, who told them she had been violently and repeatedly raped by Kownacki.
Gina told Bishop Zuroweste that she met Kownacki in the early 1970s, when she was 16 years old, after he was assigned to her family’s parish in Saint Francisville. “He convinced my parents that he wanted to help kids,” Gina said, according to the diocese’s notes of the interview. She attended Kownacki’s religion classes and cleaned the rectory where he lived. She described a time when the priest drove her to clean his mother’s house in Tamaroa. It was far away, so they had to spend the night. After dark, Kownacki entered the room where Gina was sleeping, got into her bed, and, before she knew it, was having sex with her.
Gina also told the bishop that when Kownacki was transferred to a new diocese assignment in 1971, to Washington Park, he convinced Gina’s parents to let her come live with him as his housekeeper by promising he would pay $200 a month and cover her private education. Over the next two years, Kownacki physically and sexually abused Gina. She explained to Bishop Zuroweste that Kownacki told her sex was a good thing because God desired people to love each other. Gina said that when she became pregnant, Kownacki tried multiple ways to abort the baby. He gave her something to drink and said if that “doesn’t work he could squeeze the womb and force it out.” Gina told him no, but Kownacki “put his fingers in” anyway. “It hurt awful,” Gina told Bishop Zuroweste.
Finally, Gina told the bishop that Kownacki had admitted to sexually abusing other children. Kownacki bragged to Gina about how other girls came to him for the pleasure of sex. He said he had sex with one of two Guatemalan twin boys also living with him in Washington Park. Gina thought Kownacki might also have been involved with a 14 year old girl who attended the parish. Gina told Bishop Zuroweste all of this, and more, in April 1973. But rather than investigate, the bishop transferred Kownacki to a new parish—Saint Theresa in Salem, where James lived. Bishop Zuroweste’s appointment letter was read to Saint Theresa parishioners; it said the bishop had confidence in Kownacki’s “knowledge, piety, prudence, experience, and general character.” A diocesan official later agreed, under oath at the trial of James’s lawsuit, that “grown-ups were making decisions to keep secret serious, horrific allegations of sexual molestation, rape of children.” “It’s like any family,” the official continued. “I don’t know [that] you go hanging the dirty laundry all over the line.”
With praise from Bishop Zuroweste (not the last bishop to turn a blind eye toward Kownacki’s sex abuse of children), and without any warning of Kownacki’s violent sex abuse of children, Saint Theresa parishioners had no reason not to trust Kownacki to minister to their children—children like James, who was then 12 years old. James’s parents were raised in devout Catholic homes, had attended Catholic schools, went to church every week, and raised their children in the same Catholic traditions and environment. James, a quiet and obedient boy, was raised to respect priests, to believe they spoke the word of God, to do whatever the agents of the church asked, and never to question them.
After Kownacki arrived at Saint Theresa, James volunteered his time to care for the church grounds and the rectory, where Kownacki lived. He also became an altar server and began spending more time around the church. A few months later, Kownacki asked James and another boy to stay overnight at the rectory. The three of them watched movies and Kownacki gave them alcohol. The other boy tired and went to sleep. James testified at the trial of his case that Kownacki then moved closer to James and started kissing the boy’s neck and rubbing his shoulders. Kownacki’s hand moved down James’s body and started rubbing his genitals. James had never had any sort of sexual education, but he had been taught to obey priests. In a state of confusion, James was led to Kownacki’s bedroom, where the priest stripped them both naked and then performed oral sex on James while masturbating himself. When Kownacki fell asleep, James got up to wash himself. Fearing the trouble it might bring, James told no one of the abuse.
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James testified that after that night in the rectory, Kownacki sexually abused him on a routine basis for several years. The abuse was primarily in the form of oral sex occurring in the rectory, in the school, in the church, and in the darkroom Kownacki had constructed for James to develop photographs. Kownacki took James on trips to Saint Louis, Chicago, Washington, Guatemala, and Rome. James remembers being sexually abused more than 50 times over the years. The abuse gradually ended after James entered high school. But that was not the end of Kownacki’s child sex abuse—or the end of the diocese’s leadership hiding Kownacki’s abuse.
In 1982, diocese leadership was again made aware of Kownacki’s crimes against children. Someone at the diocese spoke with the parents of a high school freshman at Saint Theresa, who said Kownacki had sexually abused him. Kownacki had told the boy he had abused other children, including James; the boy passed this information along to his parents, who in turn reached out to the diocese. After hearing of the claimed child sex abuse, the diocese’s vice-chancellor told the boy’s parents not to let “this get out all over the parish.” He told them, “let’s just keep it quiet and try to get this resolved in whatever manner the Diocese will decide how to resolve this.” A confidential report relating to the child sex abuse was prepared in 1982 by a diocesan official, concluding that Kownacki was “sick.” The report was given to Bishop John N. Wurm, then the bishop of the diocese, but once again, the diocese failed to disclose the abuse. Instead, Kownacki was immediately reassigned to Saint Joseph, a parish in Cobden. In June 1982, Bishop Wurm (now the second bishop to transfer the priest to an unsuspecting parish) sent Kownacki a letter saying the transfer to Saint Joseph was as a result of his “dedicated priestly services.” Rather than remove Kownacki from ministry, Bishop Wurm gave him praise. Years later, during the trial of James’s case against the diocese, the diocese’s vice-chancellor would testify that at the time Kownacki was transferred by Bishop Wurm to Saint Joseph in Cobden, it was common knowledge among diocesan leaders that Kownacki liked to molest children.
In June 1983, Bishop Wurm sent Kownacki a letter advising him that he was being transferred yet again; this time he was being appointed pastor of Saint Mary in Harrisburg. Bishop Wurm again said the transfer was due to Kownacki’s “dedicated priestly service.” But in August 1984, the vice-chancellor was made aware of suspicious conduct at Saint Mary. Another priest of the diocese told the vice-chancellor that he had heard two boys were living in the rectory and Kownacki was paying them $150 per week even though they did “absolutely nothing.” In addition, the parish janitor said he would see five to six boys leaving the rectory when he arrived in the morning; he could only presume the boys had stayed the night. The priest told the vice-chancellor that Kownacki had “to be removed immediately or there [would] be nothing left of the Harrisburg parish.” The diocese vicar general began to investigate. He asked diocesan staff to see any records reflecting information about allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct that were not already included in Kownacki’s personnel file. In response, he was given notes from the long-ago April 1973 meeting between Gina, Bishop Zuroweste, and others. With that information in hand, the vicar general met with parish trustees at Saint Mary, and soon thereafter he told Kownacki that he was to leave as pastor of Saint Mary. Kownacki was then placed on sick leave and not assigned to another parish.
In December 1984, James P. Keleher was ordained as the diocese's bishop. By that time, the diocese had established a personnel board that advised the bishop concerning appointments of priests to various parishes and offices in the diocese—Bishop Keleher was a member of that board. In spite of all the Diocese of Belleville and its leaders knew for more than a decade about Kownacki and his acts of sex abuse against children, minutes from the personnel board’s April 1985 meeting state “In making assignments, must not forget about Fr. Kownacki.” Meeting minutes from the following month state “Fr. Kownacki is ready for a parish. Bishop informed him the Board is about ready to come up with a parish.”
On May 15, 1985, Bishop Keleher (now the third bishop to transfer the priest to a new parish) sent Kownacki a letter informing him that he was appointed the pastor of St. Patrick parish in Tipton and the Immaculate Conception parish in Madonnaville. The bishop told Kownacki in his letter: “[A]s you assume the pastoral responsibility of the parish communities at Tipton and Madonnaville, I am confident you will carry out your mission well in building up the Body of Christ at these two beautiful parishes.” Soon after, in a June 25, 1985 letter, the bishop told Kownacki that he was also appointed the pastor of St. Mary in Valmeyer, after consultation with and approval of the personnel board. The bishop was confident Kownacki would carry out his “mission well in building up the Body of Christ in these three beautiful parishes.” A year after Kownacki’s 1985 parish appointments, the Saint Mary housekeeper met with the diocese’s vice-chancellor to report there were young boys living in the rectory. She had found a note Kownacki sent to one of them: “Come up to my bedroom if I am sleeping or not, and massage me. I need it. I love you.”
With all of that, the diocese personnel board finally decided in the spring of 1987 that Kownacki should no longer serve in parish ministry. Minutes from the board’s March 1987 meeting state “[t]his led to much discussion on Fr. Kownacki. Bishop [Keleher] said while we must take care of a brother priest, the diocese must also be considered.” Nothing in the minutes indicate whether the bishop commented that the children of the diocese must also be considered. On April 7, 1987, the personnel board met again; the minutes state “nothing much ha[d] changed” with respect to Kownacki and that the board “agreed he should be moved from Valmeyer now” (emphasis in original). Kownacki was removed from parish ministry and instead assigned to a cloistered convent for nuns where there would be no children. But then in June 1988, Bishop Keleher told Kownacki that he had been appointed to residence at Saint Henry in Belleville, “after consultation and approval of the Priest Personnel Board.” Saint Henry parish was next to a grade school and near a high school. And that is where the diocese left matters for nearly seven years—a known child sex abuser living in the immediate vicinity of schoolchildren.
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Bishop Wilton Gregory succeeded Bishop Keleher, taking over leadership of the Diocese of Belleville in 1994. Within months, he issued a press release explaining he was going to personally review all priests’ personnel files to determine if there was any information indicating undisclosed allegations of sex abuse, molestation, or misconduct between a priest and a child. After seeing Kownacki’s file, Bishop Gregory believed the matter warranted further review. He asked a diocesan official to investigate. After reviewing Kownacki’s personnel file, the official became concerned, even though the file included neither the April 1973 notes from Gina’s interview with Bishop Zuroweste nor the 1982 report naming James as a victim. What was included were Kownacki’s letters to Gina and a 1982 letter regarding the freshman boy in Salem. From that information, the official investigated further, speaking with Gina and her parents, as well as with the family from Salem who gave the information leading to the 1982 report regarding Kownacki. The official concluded that Kownacki should be removed from ministry. The diocese’s review board agreed, determining Kownacki was a risk to sexually abuse children, and in January 1995 (more than 20 years after Bishop Zuroweste first met with Gina) the review board voted to remove Kownacki from active ministry.
At the trial of James’s lawsuit, Bishop Gregory admitted that it took 21 years for Kownacki to be removed from ministry after the diocese first learned he was a violent child sex abuser. As for James, he had intended to go to his grave telling no one of how Kownacki sexually abused him. But his wife had read about Boston priests sexually abusing children. One night, she asked James if Kownacki had ever done anything to him. The two shared a tearful night. After that, James decided to file his lawsuit against the diocese—a lawsuit that ended with a jury awarding him $5 million in damages and revealing how Kownacki sexually abused children for decades, all the while enabled by multiple Bishops of the Diocese of Belleville.
The News-Democrat article referenced above also notes that Bishop Michael McGovern, the current bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, has said his “goals included learning about the history of clergy sexual abuse in Belleville, keeping children safe and addressing allegations with a process that’s fair to both victims and priests.” Understanding that history is not possible without knowing how the diocese’s bishops turned their backs on children in order to “take care of a brother priest.” A history revealed through the experiences of Gina, James, and others like them. Even so, the Diocese of Belleville has made strides forward in child protection procedures, investigating child sex abuse allegations, and publicly disclosing clerics who ministered within the diocese and are substantiated child sex abusers. The Attorney General takes note of those strides, and discusses them elsewhere in this report. But here, the emphasis is on the diocese’s history of child sex abuse cover-up—a history Bishop McGovern seems determined not to repeat.