Vonnahmen Defrocked by Pope; Was Accused of Sexual Abuse of Boys

By George Pawlaczyk
Belleville News-Democrat
April 24, 2007

Belleville - More than 14 years after he was removed from active ministry following accusations that he sexually abused boys, Robert J. Vonnahmen, who once directed a Catholic youth camp, has been removed from the priesthood by Pope Benedict XVI.

Vonnahmen, 76, the former pastor at St. Joseph's Church in Elizabethtown, while never criminally charged, was prohibited in 1993 from performing priestly duties after the Diocese of Belleville conducted an investigation of him and other priests and a deacon in the diocese. Allegations of sexual abuse prompted the investigations, which resulted in 15 priests and the deacon being removed from active ministry.

Vonnahmen, who has denied allegations of sex abuse, was accused by victims of accosting them at Camp Ondessonk in Southern Illinois. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Robert J. Vonnahmen

Of the 16 men removed from service, Vonnahmen is the only one to be liaised by Rome. One priest was cleared and another's status could not be determined Monday.

The decision to defrock Vonnahmen resulted from years of review by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which reported its findings to the offices of the pope.

"The Holy Father decreed that Robert J. Vonnahmen is dismissed from the clerical state for the good of the church," said a statement released Monday by Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton.

"This means that he is not permitted to function as a priest in any circumstance, public or private. ... According to the teachings and discipline of the Catholic Church, when a priest is dismissed from the clerical state by the Pope himself, in these circumstances, there is no appeal or recourse beyond the decision of the supreme pontiff," Braxton stated.

Neither Braxton nor the Rev. John McEvilly, vicar general of the diocese, could be reached to determine whether Vonnahmen will continue to collect a pension. Other removed clergymen are allowed to collect pensions.

"In certain cases concerning Belleville priests, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ruled that the accused priests are not to be dismissed from the clerical state ... however they are to continue a life of prayer and penance without returning to active ministry," the statement said.

Braxton wrote that he has "... personally informed the priests in question without any public statement," because the Congregation's decision did not alter the status of the priests.

However, it could not be determined how many of the removed priests have been told they must live a life "...of prayer and penance" or if they can ever be returned to ministry. Braxton wrote, "The diocese has no further information or comments about this matter," referring to Vonnahmen.

Vonnahmen formerly led Camp Ondessonk in Southern Illinois in the early 1980s, a popular Catholic children's summer camp not directly associated with the diocese. He also operated Golden Frontier Tours through a nonprofit operation called Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage Inc., which also operates a 2,500-acre shrine and resort — San Damiano — near Golconda in Pope County.

While Vonnahmen has said he is retired from the tour and shrine business, Pope County assessor's clerk Maureen Stafford said the laicized priest still resides in a tax-exempt $350,000 villa overlooking the Ohio River on the San Damiano retreat's grounds. The nonprofit supplied the cash to build the home and is listed as its owner, Stafford said.

Pope County Assessor Al Neal appealed unsuccessfully five years ago to revoke the retreat's tax-exempt status, but was overruled by a hearing referee for the Illinois Department of Revenue.

Employees who answered the telephones at the retreat and at the travel business in Shiloh, said that Vonnahmen is seen regularly at both locations.

Stephen McCaffrey, now 40, sued Vonnahmen in federal court and accused him of sexually abusing him when he was 13. The suit was dismissed in 1995 because it had not been filed within the statute of limitations.

David Clohessy, executive director of the St. Louis-based group Survivor's Network of Those Abused By Priests, said it should not have taken 14 years to remove a man from the priesthood such as Vonnahmen.

"It's hard to believe church officials are serious about protecting kids when it takes more than a decade to defrock" a priest accused of molesting children, he said.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625.


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