Ousted Priest Lives Lavishly on a Hill in Southern Illinois

By George Pawlaczyk
Belleville News-Democrat [Golconda]
January 26, 2003

From the balcony of a sprawling Mediterranean-style villa high above the Ohio River, ousted Belleville Diocese priest Robert Vonnahmen has a breathtaking view.

The 72-year-old priest — banished in 1993 from active ministry for allegedly sexually abusing minors at a church-run summer camp he once directed — has been supplied the brand new home for his retirement.

It's completely free. He probably won't even have to pay property taxes.

Golden Shrine Pilgrimage Inc., a nonprofit group formerly headed by Vonnahmen, runs a religious retreat called San Damiano in deep Southern Illinois where the retirement villa is located. The nonprofit group supplied the cash to build the home.

"He's got the best spot on the bluff, that's for sure," said Pope County Assessor Al Neal. "I was told that it was Father Vonnahmen's personal house."

Last week, Neal estimated the home's construction cost at $350,000.

But Neal said he got a big surprise when he checked the structure's location, which he learned was just a few yards inside neighboring Hardin County.

Neal has been battling for years with the Illinois Department of Revenue to revoke property and income-tax exemptions given to Golden Shrine Pilgrimage's hotel and restaurant at the San Damiano retreat. The spacious retreat's grounds span both counties.

The organization was formerly part of the Belleville Catholic Diocese. Since before and after his ouster from active ministry, Vonnahmen was the paid director of the group's travel business — Golden Frontier Tours — until his retirement in September.

"This house should clearly be required to pay property taxes," Neal said. "How many personal homes are going to be built on this so-called retreat without paying taxes? Where do you draw the line?"

Hardin County Assessor Joyce Austin has yet to submit Vonnahmen's request for a property tax exemption, which he personally filed with her more than a year ago when construction on the 2,600-square-foot house began.

To conduct a state-required local review of the property tax exemption application, Austin said she will have to hire specially trained reviewers.

"I don't know when that will happen," she said.

David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Vonnahmen's free retirement home is an insult to his alleged victims.

"My heart goes out to those he abused. Now he has been unjustly rewarded with a free home. Catholics everywhere should be outraged," he said.

Vonnahmen's official status within the Catholic Church is "administrative leave," although Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory has filed a petition with the Vatican to banish Vonnahmen from the priesthood.

Unlike other Belleville Diocese priests expelled for alleged sexual abuse of minors, Vonnahmen's removal from his ministry a decade ago has not prevented him from continuing a successful career connected to religion.

Instead, Golden Shrine Pilgrimage, which was started by the Belleville Diocese in 1922, has provided Vonnahmen with a golden parachute for his retirement.

After the diocese officially severed its connection with Golden Shrine in 1992 following a sex abuse scandal at the group's Camp Ondessonk for boys, Vonnahmen essentially took over and expanded the nonprofit organization.

Its holdings include Golden Frontier Tours, which has an office in Swansea, and the San Damiano Retreat Center and Shrine 10 miles north of Golconda.

Because of Vonnahmen's long association with the organization, his retirement perks include:

• Living free of charge for the rest of his life in the new home financed by the organization.

• Traveling without paying for air travel, hotel or restaurant bills to the choicest vacation spots in the world, including Rome, London, Paris and even to the Great Wall of China.

Because Vonnahmen's long-time office manager at Golden Frontier Tours, Craig Simoneaux, succeeded him as manager of the tour business and president of Golden Shrine Pilgrimage, Vonnahmen can be assured he will be selected whenever he wants to be when a tour guide is needed.

According to a written statement from Simoneaux, Vonnahmen's retirement home actually is a retirement home for all priests, although Vonnahmen is the only current resident. The residence is officially known as St. Francis Lodge.

"St. Francis Lodge is not Father Vonnahmen's personal residence; it belongs to Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage," according to Simoneaux's statement. "Father Vonnahmen is a resident of St. Francis Lodge."

But a visit to the San Damiano Shrine last week cast doubt on that claim. Four employees, including a groundsman driving a pickup with the shrine's logo on the side, said the new house belonged to "Father."

Pointing through a small woods, the groundskeeper said, "That's father's house, right over there."

Next to the villa is a smaller home. A teen-aged boy who answered the door there said, "Father Vonnahmen? He lives there, next door. That's his house."



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.