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  Years Later, Wounds from Scandal Remain Painful
Most of the 13 Priests, Deacon Who Were Removed Are Still Living in the Region

By Bill Smith, Greg Jonsson And Doug Moore
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
March 3, 2002

Each new announcement, each new allegation cut deeply and painfully into the Belleville Diocese.

By the time the three-year string of newspaper headlines ended in late April 1995, 13 Catholic priests and a church deacon had been stripped of their ministries over charges of sexual abuse.

It was, said Monsignor James E. Margason of Belleville, a time of "anger, sadness and confusion" throughout the diocese.

"There was a lot of loss of faith by people," said Margason, vicar general in charge of such cases in the Belleville Diocese. "They felt a trust was being broken."

Seven years later, the diocese and its parishioners and the priests are trying to move on. But for all, the wounds are still slow to heal.

At a southwestern Illinois service station where one priest now works, a reporter approached the man last week as he awaited customers inside a small office.

"It's over," the man said, refusing to comment further.

Nearby, a white-haired woman looked up from her chair, tears welling in her eyes.

"Can't you leave it alone?" she asked. "You don't know how much it hurts every time this comes up."

From the front porch of his apartment in St. Louis, another of the priests declined to talk about that part of his past.

"My life has gone in a whole new direction, a better direction," he said.

Inside a Southern Illinois restaurant managed by another of the priests, a small, elderly woman working the counter rushed into the nearby kitchen when a reporter identified himself.

"No!" was all she said as she hurried away.

Shock spread through diocese

The removals, which began in 1993, stunned clergy members and parishioners throughout the 28-county Southern Illinois diocese -- from Mount Vernon to Vienna to Washington Park.

Only one of the men, who ranged in age from mid-30s to 70s, was ever charged with a crime.

In many of the cases, statutes of limitations had expired, making criminal prosecution and civil cases impossible.

Some parishioners in the 124,000-member diocese steadfastly refused to believe the allegations, saying the accusers were after money, revenge, or were simply mistaken. Many tied yellow ribbons to church doors, trees and car antennas. In at least one parish elementary school, a counselor was assigned to talk to children about their feelings.

Margason, who during a short period as head of the diocese removed three priests over allegations of sexual abuse of minors, said many parishes were left in turmoil.

"There was a great deal of anger directed at me and at the church," he said. "And there was a lot of anger at the alleged victims, even though the parishioners didn't even know who the victims were."

The parishes and the diocese have "calmed down considerably since then," Margason said. "But the harm that has been done can never totally be healed."

The first removal took place in February 1993 when James P. Keleher was still serving as bishop of the diocese. The rector of St. Peter's Cathedral in Belleville resigned his post, claiming "stress and anxiety." He later said he resigned because he was "a sex addict."

A month later, the pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Belleville resigned because of allegations of sexual misconduct while he was principal at Mater Dei Catholic High School some 30 years earlier.

Two weeks later, a third priest -- the pastor of St. Boniface Parish in Germantown -- was removed after allegations he had been involved in sexual misconduct involving a young adult more than 10 years earlier.

The numbers of exiled priests continued to grow after Bishop Wilton Gregory became head of the diocese.

In May 1994, Gregory said that three Catholic priests were among more than 30 people who had told church officials that they were abused by priests in the diocese.

While Gregory usually declined to detail the abuse allegations, he strongly defended decisions by a diocesan review board to remove those priests it believed to have been involved in sexual misconduct.

In September 1994, the Rev. Daniel Friedman, who had been pastor of St. Paul's Catholic Church in Vienna, Ill., and the chaplain at Camp Ondessonk in Southern Illinois, was ordered removed from parish work and from any private contact with children. The allegations involved reports of sexual misconduct with a minor in the late 1980s.

But after a more thorough review of the case, Friedman became the only one of the 13 priests to be returned to active ministry.

Last month, however, Friedman was named as defendant in a $100,000 sexual battery suit in Belleville.

In the suit, a parishioner, Judy L. Hangsleben of New Baden, accuses Friedman of fondling her during three counseling sessions in January and February 2000.

"The first time, I was so stunned I didn't say anything," said Hangsleben, 52. "It didn't dawn on me to run to the bishop or the police."

At the time of the second and third alleged incidents, she said, she demanded the priest stop touching her.

The abuse stopped, she said, and she continued with her counseling sessions. It wasn't until he began cutting her off from activities in the parish and treated her coldly, that she went to the diocesan offices, she said.

When diocesan officials were unhelpful, she said, she decided to sue. Friedman could not be reached for comment. He has declined to comment publicly since the suit was filed.

Friedman remains pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Aviston, in Clinton County, Margason said. A diocesan investigation into the allegations continues, he said. The case is different from the other cases, Margason said, because the alleged victim is an adult. As a result, Margason said, he must have an admission from the priest or strong, credible evidence that the assault took place.

New jobs, new lives

Many of the priests continue to live and work in this area. Several have taken new jobs since leaving the active priesthood.

Most of them are living private lives unconnected with the church and with no apparent contact with children.

Many of the priests who lost their positions work in St. Louis, Belleville and in many small towns in Southern Illinois.

One works a day shift in the electronics department of a Belleville department store.

Another is a host at a Belleville restaurant; another reportedly has worked in a florist business.

One works for Veterans Affairs in downtown St. Louis. One is seriously ill and is in a Fairview Heights nursing home. One died in 1996.

Others have raised concern within the diocese.

Robert Vonnahmen, who was removed from his diocesan duties in 1993 after allegations that he abused a boy, 13, while working as a camp director at Camp Ondessonk in Southern Illinois, operates a travel agency just off North Illinois Street (Route 159) in Swansea.

Called Golden Frontier, the agency is sponsored by Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage, a brochure says. Vonnahmen is named on the brochure as director of Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage.

On its Web page and in its brochures, Golden Frontier offers everything from Panama Canal cruises to tours of Rome, England and Greece.

The Web page identifies Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage as a nonprofit organization "founded to create and operate pilgrimage programs to shrines and places of particular interest to people of the Catholic faith." It also says it sponsors San Damiano Retreat, a 200-acre retreat for adults in the Shawnee National Forest on the Ohio River.

The retreat, the Web page says, offers an outdoor Stations of the Cross, a "Garden of the Angels," a religious gift center and a religious art display.

Vonnahmen's group has no connection with the diocese, Margason said. Diocesan officials have asked Vonnahmen to note in any advertising in Catholic newspapers that his group has no ties to the diocese, he added.

Margason also said that reports that Vonnahmen continues to wear a priest's collar are "still a concern."

"When we challenge him on it, he denies it," Margason said.

Attempts to contact Vonnahmen at his office last week were unsuccessfu l. Workers there said he was too busy to meet with a reporter. He did not return phone calls made to the office.

Another of the priests, Robert Chlopecki, has not been a part of St. Ann's Church in Nashville, Ill., since his removal in April 1993.

Still, some parishioners have maintained contact with him, even seeking him out for spiritual advice.

Brian Borowiak, one of the parishioners, said he never believed the allegations and said he turned to Chlopecki for advice several years ago when Borowiak was facing a difficult period in his life.

"He was very helpful," Borowiak said. "I still think he was a good priest."

A diocesan insider said some church officials are concerned because Chlopecki, who lives on a rural road south of Richview, Ill., sometimes holds prayer gatherings at a facility called The Hermitage of St. Francis and St. Ann.

Chlopecki could not be reached for comment.

Margason said that of the priests who were removed, "at least four" get some retirement benefits from the church. A handful of those without jobs -- "three of four" -- receive at least a portion of their salaries, he said. Several get some sort of medical coverage, he said.

All of the priests were offered "professional help" at the time of their removal, said Margason, and most accepted it. The diocese is still paying for two of the priests.

 
 

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