Seminary student reported priest sexual abuse at Shiloh orphanage 54 years ago
By Teri Maddox
July 11, 2020
Memories came flooding back for Bob Fellner this spring, when news broke that the Catholic Diocese of Belleville had expanded its list of clergymen credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors or serious sexual misconduct with adults.
One of the new names was the Rev. Arthur W. Niemeyer, who died in 1988 after serving churches in Belleville, Shiloh, Kinmundy, Salem and Cahokia. He also worked as director of St. John’s Orphanage in Shiloh in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Fellner was a seminarian who volunteered as a house parent for three summers.
Fellner, 79, of St. Louis, said he and the orphanage’s mother superior reported suspected sexual abuse of grade-school boys by Niemeyer in 1966 to Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste, now deceased, who transferred Niemeyer to another parish.
To Fellner, it seemed like the bishop was sweeping allegations under the rug without holding Niemeyer accountable.
“It kind of blew my mind,” he said last week.
Fellner went on to become a priest in 1967, despite what he believes was an attempt by Zuroweste to get him kicked out of seminary because of his involvement in the case. Fellner served at the former St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church in Cahokia before leaving the ministry, getting married and working in the insurance business for more than 30 years. He’s now retired.
Fellner said he’s glad the truth about abusive clergymen is coming out all over the country, even though it took 54 years in Niemeyer’s case.
“Some of the things that I’ve found out since then, and some of the kids that were affected ... One boy in particular, he committed suicide, which I suspect was a result of the trauma,” he said. “I still get worked up talking about it today. It did not have to happen.”
Some assignments on new list
Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton originally posted a list of credibly accused clergymen in 2018 with the names of 16 priests and one deacon. Most had been removed from ministry in the 1990s after a review board was formed to investigate allegations.
“The Diocese is providing this list with the prayerful intention and hope that individuals who may have been affected by childhood sexual abuse will find it helpful to their healing and recovery,” it stated.
The St. Louis chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, better known as SNAP, criticized Braxton for including only Belleville priests, not those from other dioceses or orders who worked in Southern Illinois. SNAP also called on the bishop to provide assignments for each priest to help victims identify abusers.
Braxton updated the list on June 17, adding the names of 10 clergymen from outside the diocese and two Belleville priests, including Niemeyer and the Rev. Thomas W. Miller, a monsignor at the time of his death in 2004.
Braxton also added parish assignments for the 19 accused clergymen in the diocese. Niemeyer served at St. Peter and St. Luke parishes in Belleville, St. Theresa of Avila in Salem, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kinmundy and Holy Family in Cahokia, according to the list. Miller served at St. Joseph in Olney, St. Clare in O’Fallon and St. Mary in Anna.
Not included on the list were jobs at schools, hospitals, orphanages or summer camps, resulting in more criticism from SNAP.
Camp Ondessonk wasn’t listed as an assignment for the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, its longtime director, who was removed from ministry in 1993 and died in 2016. St. John’s Orphanage wasn’t listed for Niemeyer, nor was Belleville Academy of Notre Dame High School, where he taught religion in the 1950s.
“This kind of deception and spin just proves how insincere church officials are,” said SNAP spokesman David Clohessy. “If you really want to stop a priest, you make it as easy as possible for police, prosecutors, parishioners and the public to recognize these men.”
Diocese responds to criticism
Last week, SNAP called on the Belleville Diocese to add to its list non-parish assignments and the names of five Society of Mary priests who once worked in metro-east Catholic high schools. The five were among 46 clergymen that the religious order identified in June as those found to have sexually abused minors.
Diocese spokesman Monsignor John T. Myler declined to comment on Niemeyer, Miller or the Belleville list, but he emailed a statement on Wednesday.
“The Diocese of Belleville has recently added on its website the names of five Marianists who decades ago ministered in our diocese and have been credibly accused of instances of abuse outside the diocese and in other parts of the country,” it stated. “Their names were received by the diocese from the Marianist Provincial less than three weeks ago.
“Also, in order to be transparent, the list of Diocesan Priests who were credibly accused includes a complete list of all their parish assignments. To be even further transparent, consideration is being given to adding any additional non-parish ministries the clerics may have had during their years of active ministry.”
It’s unclear when this might happen. Braxton is less than two weeks away from retiring. Bishop-Elect Michael G. McGovern is set to be installed as his successor on July 22.
Dozens of newspaper stories have been published about the 17 clergymen on Braxton’s original list of those credibly accused, mainly because they were publicly removed from ministry. That wasn’t the case with Niemeyer or Miller.
In 2004, hundreds of parishioners, clergymen, family and friends attended a funeral service for Miller at St. Mary in Anna, where he was serving as pastor when he died at age 52 after a long battle with cancer, according to a story in The Southern Illinoisan.
Speakers praised Miller for his love, discipleship and work for justice and noted that he had a beautiful singing voice.
“Not content to be merely a pastor who gave Sunday services, Miller ventured out to help others around town and acted as a pastor to the prisoners in Vienna Correctional Center,” the newspaper reported. “(One speaker) commended Miller Friday on his dedication to those who were outcasts in society and also those who were members of the church.”
Orphanage resident weighs in
Pat (McCarthy) Schutzenhofer, 71, of Smithton, was bothered when she read the updated Belleville list of credibly accused clergymen and saw that Niemeyer’s assignments didn’t include his 10-year job at St. John’s Orphanage, where she lived as a teenager in the 1960s.
Niemeyer is identified as orphanage director in yearbooks for Belleville Academy of Notre Dame High School, where he also taught religion from at least 1953 to 1960.
The orphanage was in Corpus Christi parish in Shiloh. A church history lists Niemeyer as its pastor from 1956 to 1966, although that assignment doesn’t appear under his name on the Belleville list of credibly accused clergymen. A history of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kinmundy and St. Theresa of Avila in Salem mentions that Niemeyer was leading their partner parishes in 1967.
Schutzenhofer said no orphanage residents told her they were abused while she was living there. She remembers people wondering why Niemeyer regularly invited boys to the rectory, but not girls.
“It’s not that I’m trying to bring the church down,” said Schutzenhofer, who’s retired from a supermarket company. “My concern is for the people out there who have suffered all these years and haven’t been able to find healing for what they went through.”
Schutzenhofer said she’s optimistic that the new bishop will enact policies to increase transparency when it comes to sexual abuse by clergymen.
“If it did happen, it was wrong, and it should not continue,” she said. “And if people don’t speak up ... Even if we just save one child, it’s worth it.”
Fellner said he feels the same way, and that he’s coming forward with details of his experience at the orphanage out of a sense of responsibility and the hope that it will help change the system and protect children.
“From my experience in the diocese, there was a lot of pedophile activity going on, and it was kept top secret until the whole thing blew up, finally,” he said.
St. John’s Orphanage and Belleville Academy of Notre Dame High School have been closed for decades. Former orphanage buildings on Lebanon Avenue in Shiloh are now part of the Hicke-Sense Home for retired priests.
‘Nervous as hell’ at meeting
Fellner grew up in Belleville and attended St. John’s Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas. During the summers of 1964, ‘65 and ‘66, he volunteered at St. John’s Orphanage, serving as house parent for high-school boys and performing a variety of tasks, including driving kids to The Muny in St. Louis on a mini-bus when tickets were donated.
Fellner said no boys at the orphanage told him they were abused, but that one day in 1966, “Sister Angela,” who oversaw work of nuns in the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ order, shared her suspicions about Niemeyer.
“She came to me and said, ‘We have a problem,’” Fellner said. “A lot of the grade-school boys were making trips to the rectory at odd times during the day. And it wasn’t all the boys, just individual boys. ... I have to admit I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I was very naive.
“Looking back, it was obvious. There was no need for those boys to be going up there alone.”
Feller said he was “nervous as hell” at a meeting that Sister Angela arranged with Bishop Zuroweste at the Belleville chancery office, where she presented “documentation” of what was taking place at the orphanage.
Fellner said he couldn’t recall Zuroweste having much of a reaction during the meeting, but when Fellner returned to seminary in the fall, he realized the bishop was unhappy with him.
“The rector called me in and said he had received a question from my bishop, who wanted to know if he thought I was good for ordination,” Fellner said. “So I told him the story of my visit to the bishop, and he said, ‘OK, don’t worry about it. I can take care of it for you.’”
Zuroweste led the Belleville diocese for 28 years, from 1948 to 1976. He died in 1987 at age 85.
Policies vary across country
As of January, 178 dioceses and Catholic orders had posted lists of 6,754 clergymen credibly accused of sexual misconduct or assault in the United States, according to ProPublica, a nonprofit, New York-based news service that has combined all the lists on its website.
But policies vary widely on what information is provided. Some lists only give names of clergymen. Belleville’s original list went a step further with dates of ordination, removal from ministry and death. The updated one includes priests and brothers from other orders, as well as parish assignments for those in the diocese.
The Society of Mary put parish and school assignments on its list, but like the Belleville diocese, it chose not to include dates.
“Many victims, survivors and/or their families desire privacy when they come forward with an allegation,” according to a Society of Mary statement. “The Marianist Province decided not to include dates with ministry assignments in order to help protect their privacy.”
That argument isn’t persuasive to Terence McKiernan, founding president of BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that compiles data related to sexual abuse in the Catholic church.
“You need to know, ‘When was that brother at that school?’ That’s the only way you’re going to be able to map a career history of allegations,” he said.
McKiernan said it’s common for dioceses to publish incomplete or inaccurate lists, despite extensive in-house record-keeping, then blame it on clerical errors that wouldn’t happen if they were placing a priority on providing meaningful information to the public.
Clohessy and McKiernan consider the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento list to be one of the best because it includes photos of clergymen, seminaries attended, assignments with dates, genders and ages of victims, nature of each allegation, date ranges of alleged abuse, when misconduct was first reported and other details.
“When you do that, you are beginning to grapple with the actual thing that we’re talking about here, and that’s the abuse of children,” McKiernan said.