Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Court Finds Priest Abuse Claim Against Diocese Is Not Time-Barred

In Wisniewski v. Diocese of Belleville, (Ill. App., Jan. 13, 2011), an Illinois appellate court in a 2-1 decision rejected a statute of limitations and repose defense raised by a Catholic diocese held responsible for sexual abuse by a priest.  In a lengthy decision, the majority found that the fraudulent concealment doctrine tolled the statute of repose in the suit in which a jury had awarded plaintiff $2.4 million in compensatory damages and $2.6 million in punitive damages. The court also upheld the legal sufficiency of plaintiff's claim on the merits, stating:
[T]he Diocese had knowledge of Kownacki's [the priest's] propensity to abuse minor children, plying them with alcohol prior to abusing them and telling them the abuse was a good thing. The Diocese placed Kownacki in the position to abuse Wisniewski in the same manner, and the Diocese facilitated and promoted Kownacki's abuse not only through silence but through affirmative acts of misrepresentation concerning Kownacki's character . Almost all the abuse ... occurred on church property that Kownacki occupied solely because of his position as a priest of the Diocese. The opportunity for abuse created by the Diocese called for the exercise of control by the Diocese. Its failure to do so is unquestionably actionable in Illinois courts.
Judge Spomer dissented, arguing that under then-applicable statute of repose, plaintiff's claims were time barred in 1991 when he reached the age of 30.