Rural Diocese Shaken by Scandal
9 Belleville-Area Priests Face Sex-Abuse Accusations

By Michael Hirsley
Chicago Tribune
February 7, 1994

As administrators of the Catholic diocese centered on this town of 43,000 and sprawled across 28 southern Illinois counties, Rev. James Margasan repeatedly faces the same question from parishioners.

"They always ask me, 'Is it over?'

"And my response has to be, 'I don't know. I just hope and pray,' " Margasan said on a recent morning in the chancery office in Belleville.

Across the street from the chancery is St. Peter's Roman Catholic Cathedral. Just as the massive gray stone cathedral dominates the downtown area, the everyday Catholic routine in this largely rural diocese has been overshadowed for most of the last year by one issue-sexual abuse of minors by the clergy.

And by the end of the week, it became clear that it's not over.

On Thursday, Margasan learned that the diocesan review board was recommending removal of another priest because of an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor "more than 20 years ago." The administrator spoke Thursday with the accused, Rev. Walter MacPherson, 70, pastor of St. Martin of Tours parish in Washington Park, a community just east of Belleville.

Then, at a news conference Friday, Margasan announced with "deep sorrow" that MacPherson was being placed on administrative leave.

Nine priests and a deacon have now stepped down from Belleville diocese parishes since last March, after they have been accused of sexually abusing young boys.

None of the accused has been tried on criminal charges. Thus far, only one faces civil lawsuits. Most of the allegations stem from incidents more than a decade ago that have not been made public and are beyond the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution. Nonetheless, the diocese has determined that four of the priests will not be allowed to return to ministry.

Asked if they still represent a possible threat to minors, Margasan says simply, "The language we use is that they're not fit for ministry."

Removing nine from a roster of only 110 active priests-and doing so in less than a year, after having no previous cases-has brought the Belleville diocese notoriety even amid a clergy sexual abuse crisis that has ravaged American Catholicism.

When southern Illinois Catholics from Belleville to Germantown to Ruma to Elizabethtown ask whether the scandal is over in their diocese, they're echoing the concerns of peers across the country.

Removals, resignations and convictions of accused priests, along with reports of out-of-court settlements and continuing lawsuits, keep escalating the clergy abuse issue. It has now reached as far as an accusation against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and senior prelate among the U.S. bishops.

But nowhere has the issue become more quickly compacted and acutely felt than in Belleville.

"I sense that this is a moment of great embarrassment for the people," Bishop Wilton Gregory said of the spate of allegations in Belleville. Gregory is leaving his post as auxiliary bishop under Bernardin in Chicago to take the top spot in Belleville, where he will be installed as bishop Thursday.

At least one person thinks the diocese's problems with clergy sexual abuse are far from over. David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, lives in St. Louis, 15 miles northwest of Belleville.

He has closely monitored the accusations and priest removals in Belleville, and the St. Louis SNAP chapter includes members from the southern Illinois diocese who have spoken privately of more abusive priests. As a result, he said, "I think there are two or three more priests who should go."

He cited anonymous claims that a homosexual sex ring involving priests once operated out of a national shrine called Our Lady of the Snows near Belleville, a priest's resignation last year for reasons of stress that has not been further explained and a St. Louis TV station's using hidden camera and microphone last year to record a meeting it arranged between a male prostitute and a Belleville diocese priest. The station apologized for "errors in judgment" and never aired the footage.

Margasan dismisses the claims. He said the accused have all been questioned and have "all denied there was any sex ring or that the shrine was used in any way as a meeting place or a place where sexual misconduct occurred."

He said the questioned priest's leave has nothing to do with sex abuse allegations. The TV incident was not investigated by the diocese's review board for sexual abuse cases, he said. "While this was apparently a violation of the priest's vow of celibacy, it was not sexual abuse with a minor."

Margasan said, "There are no other sexual abuse investigations open at this point."

Rev. James Nall, vice president of the Southern Illinois Association of Priests, credits the diocese with learning a great deal about handling sex abuse cases since they began surfacing last year.

At that time, the association issued a critical statement "calling for support of the abused as well as the priests, to give a sense of justice," Nall said. "We also called for openness and honesty in dealing with cases . . . don't keep them in secrecy."

He and Margasan believe the policy of greater openness and support is a reason why so many cases have been reported recently. Clohessy believes his group's proximity is a reason: "When victims see they're not alone, they become angry and want to come forward."

Gregory succeeds Belleville Bishop James Keleher, who took some of the criticism about handling of the cases before he left last September to head the Kansas City diocese.

The new bishop said he would meet as soon as possible with each of the accused priests. And, Gregory added, "I'm certainly open to meeting with any of those who've made allegations. I don't know how many, or who, they are.

"I intend to respect their privacy, and retain their anonymity as they desire. I hope to minister, reconcile and extend compassion to them."

One accuser who has gone public spent only a short time in the diocese. Stephen McCaffrey, 26, an insurance agent in Albuquerque, N.M., has filed a $3.5 million civil lawsuit, charging that Rev. Edward Vonnahmen, 62, one of the nine removed priests, sodomized him in 1981, when McCaffrey was a 13-year-old at a summer camp run by Vonnahmen in the Belleville diocese.

"After he did it, he told me that if I told anyone, he'd butcher a horse I loved to ride at camp. And he said he'd set a building on fire, heroically put it out, then tell my father I had started it," McCaffrey said. After repressing the memory for years, he said, it was triggered and overwhelmed him during a church service in Albuquerque.

He said he still goes to Catholic church occasionally, but attends another church as well. He said he receives psychological therapy, which he began after recalling the abuse.

Much of the facts of what caused the removals of nine priests and a deacon remain a mystery.

Because of that, loyalties are divided. Some parishioners remain fiercely devoted to removed priests, feeling they've been unjustly accused. Others feel there must be fire where there is so much smoke.

"I've been in business all my life, and there's always ups and downs in business. The church is a business too," said one man outside St. Peter's Cathedral last week.

"Our religion has to come from within," a woman said. "We can't let this affect us."


Additional material published Feb. 10, 1994:

Corrections and clarifications.

A story Monday about the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville, Ill., having removed nine priests in the past year because of sexual abuse allegations misspelled administrator Rev. James Margason's last name, and incorrectly identified accused priest Rev. Robert Vonnahmen as Rev. Edward Vonnahmen. Also, the town of Washington Park was incorrectly located. It is northwest of Belleville. The Tribune regrets the error.


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