Monday, July 25, 2011

Braxton battles on against abuse suit

Here's another diocese in trouble with a bishop who seems disconnected from both his priests and his parishoners, not to mention the law.

Jul. 25, 2011
By Robert McClory

Bishop Edward Braxton took a big chance when he decided to let his diocese of Belleville, Ill., go to trial on charges of fraud and deceit regarding its mishandling of a serial, sex-abuser priest. He could have opted for an out-of-court settlement but the trial option apparently seemed to him a relatively safe gamble at the time.
After all, the plaintiff was a 47-year-old man, James Wisniewski, whose abuse had occurred 35 years before. This wasn’t a case of repressed and recovered memory. Wisniewski admitted he was always aware of the abuse he endured at the hands of Fr. Raymond Kownacki, but had spoken to nobody about it until 2002, when he filed suit against the diocese.
Surely, the statute of limitations alone would doom the plaintiff’s case, Braxton may have reasoned.
But Braxton lost his bet big time in August 2008 when a jury found the diocese guilty of “fraudulent concealment” and awarded Wisniewski $2.4 million in compensatory damages and an unexpected $2.6 million in punitive damages.
Braxton appealed the trial verdict, and the state appellate court upheld it in January 2011. Braxton appealed again, and in May the Supreme Court of Illinois refused to review the case.
The original $5 million award to Wisniewski has now risen to well over $6 million, due to accruing interest charges. This sum continues to rise at the rate of $1,250 per day.
And Braxton battles on. In June, he asked the high court to reconsider its May decision -- a long shot, legal experts say.

The high punitive damages reflected the jury’s contempt for the diocese’s deliberate deception for almost 30 years during the leadership of at least three bishops.
But many in the Belleville diocese are not so sanguine. Since his arrival in 2005, Braxton’s handling of financial matters and his reluctance to seek advice have been regularly criticized by laity and priests.
In a statement last May, James Friederich, a member of the diocesan finance council, called Braxton “a financial disaster” as bishop. He “did not ask the council for its advice or consent before allowing the Wisniewski suit to go to trial,” Friederich said, and “he did not seek the advice or consent of the council before he decided to appeal the $5 million judgment rather than try to settle for less money.”
Nor was advice sought, he noted, before Braxton settled another clergy abuse case for $1.2 million.
Friederich also said Braxton had misused funds earmarked for the Propagation of the Faith several years ago and admitted he was wrong “only when the people of the diocese rose up in anger” (NCR, May 2, 2008).
The annual diocesan appeal, he said, is now garnering $500,000 less per year than it was at the time Braxton became bishop. Friederich predicted the diocese “will soon be bankrupt because of [Braxton’s] arrogance” in using money and his handling of sex abuse cases, three more of which are slated for trial this year or next.
Similar charges from priests have been stewing in the diocese for years.
In 2007, 46 priests (representing 60 percent of the active, incardinated clergy) issued a statement saying, “Our repeated attempts to work cooperatively with Bishop Braxton through the Presbyteral Council, Diocesan Pastoral Council, Diocesan Finance Council, Priests Personnel Board and Annual Priests Convocation have proved futile.”
Recently, members of the Belleville Association of Priests released a list of 20 alleged instances of fiscal and authority abuses by Braxton. He has steadfastly refused press requests to reply to criticism.

Full story at NCR

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