Bishop Agrees to Review Case against Priest
But Diocese Expects No New Evidence
By George Pawlaczyk
May 8, 2002
Belleville — Bishop Wilton Gregory is reviewing allegations of sex abuse of minors that led to the removal from the Belleville Diocese of the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen nine years ago, but a diocesan spokesman said no new evidence has been presented.
And a Swansea travel agency headed by Vonnahmen that uses the phrase "Catholic Churches of Southern Illinois" on the sides of its tour buses, is being targeted by a lawyer for the diocese who wants the practice to stop. The travel agency, Golden Frontier, has no connection to the Belleville Diocese.
Vonnahmen, 71, said Monday that allegations that he abused young boys at Camp Ondessonk in the 1980s are false and that he should be restored to his former priestly parish duties.
"All my cases were totally dismissed. They were totally thrown out of court. The judge dismissed them because the depositions that were given were certainly a red light. They were ludicrous charges," Vonnahmen said.
"I have asked the bishop to review my case."
In 1994, Vonnahmen also filed an appeal with the Vatican that is still undecided.
But Monsignor James Margason, vicar general of the diocese, said Tuesday that while Gregory agreed to Vonnahmen's recent request for a review, the ousted priest failed to accurately state why the civil court cases were dismissed.
"He has asked for a review of his case. But there is no new information other than his statement that the cases were all dismissed, and the cases were dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired," Margason said, adding "There is nothing concerning whether these allegations are true or false."
In 1993, Vonnahmen, a former director at Camp Ondessonk, was found unfit as a priest and was removed from his duties as pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Elizabethtown. The church is near the 200-acre San Damiano retreat on the Ohio River that a nonprofit group headed by Vonnahmen operates as a shrine, hotel and restaurant. The property is exempt from local taxation.
While the case against Vonnahmen resulted from accusations of sexual misconduct alleged to have occurred more than 20 years ago, a diocesan review board recommended in 1993 that he be removed as a priest. Vonnahmen was one of seven Belleville Diocese priests removed that year for sexual abuse of minors or sexual misconduct. Another three were removed in 1994 and two in 1995 for similar alleged misconduct. None faced criminal charges.
Vonnahmen's banishment from the diocese came with requirements that he cease acting in his former role as a priest, Margason said.
"We have instructed him on two things, not to wear clerical garb and not to perform any religious function," Margason said. This would include saying Mass.
But Vonnahmen said he says Mass every day at San Damiano, but does not wear the traditional priestly vestments required by the Catholic Church.
"I don't wear a collar. I wear black," he said.
"This is a private Mass. It's not open to the public. Other priests say (public) Mass here. I have many priests who come here."
Margason said that saying a Mass in which some people would be turned away is a violation on at least two levels: It violates the order not to perform religious services and it violates liturgical law that requires a priest to wear proper vestments when saying Mass.
"There is no such thing as a private Mass," Margason said.
The travel agency's use of the phrase "Catholic Churches of Southern Illinois" violates the official split between the diocese and Vonnahmen ordered in 1993, he said.
Margason said Vonnahmen will be contacted by a diocesan attorney and will be asked to cease using the phrase. If that doesn't work, a lawsuit could be brought, he said.
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