As an Illinois attorney representing victims of sexual abuse I was very encouraged by the verdict returned yesterdy in St. Clair County awarding a former altar by $5 million against the Belleville Archdiocese. This is one of the most significant verdicts in Illinois involving childhood sexual abuse, and it included $2.6 million in punitive damages and $2.4 million in compensatory damages. The jury found that the diocese conspired to hush sex abuse allegations and allowed the priest free rein in the diocese even after church officials knew he couldn’t control his sexual urges toward young boys and girls.
Verdicts like this encourges other victims to come forward and clearly forces entities that are responsible for the care of our children to see that those in their employment are properly and promptly disciplined so as to prevent future acts of childhoood sexual abuse. One of the jurors who was interviewed after the verdict stated that the actions of the diocese were “appalling” and added “they kept placing Father Kownacki in the parishes.” A former diocesan official at the Belleville Archdioces testified that prior allegations concerning Father Kownacki were hushed up and that the victims were treated as “dirty laundry.” According to the evidence at trial it took more than 20 years for Kownacki to be removed from active ministry.
Since the abuse took place in the 1960’s the victim has had a difficult time defeating the statutue of limitations defenses that have been use for years to have these complaints dismissed. Recently, the Applellate Court for the Fifth District stated: “(w)e conclude that section 13-202.2(e) evinces a clear legislative intent that the 2003 amendment apply to all cases filed on or after its effective date, including those in which the allegations of abuse relate to events that preceded the amendment.” Doe v. Diocese of Dallas, 379 Ill. App. 3d 782, 792, 885 N.E. 2d 376, 384 (2008). This decision should allow victims to step forward and hold those accountable for sexual abuse that took place many years ago that were previously dismissed based on the statute of limitations. This verdict demonstates that it can and will be done!