Catholic Paper Reverses Ban on Ads for Travel Agency

By Tim Townsend
Post-Dispatch [St. Louis MO]
January 8, 2006

The St. Louis archdiocesan newspaper has been running advertisements from a travel agency it once banned from its pages because the agency was under a cloud - the priest who ran it was accused of sexually molesting minors.

Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, 1986 file photo. (AP Photo)

The archdiocese said in May 2002 that it would no longer accept advertising in its weekly newspaper, the St. Louis Review, from Golden Frontier, a travel agency in Swansea run by a Belleville priest, the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen.

At the time, Jim Orso, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said, "We feel it is inappropriate to continue running these Golden Frontier ads as long as Father Vonnahmen, who is out of favor in his own diocese, continues to have an affiliation with Golden Frontier."

Jim Rygelski, the Review's editor, said last week that the newspaper resumed accepting advertising from Golden Frontier three years ago, within months of banning it. The paper is under the editorial direction of the Rev. Robert W. Finn (now bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese).

"It was decided not to run (the ads) until there was a clarification on Father Vonnahmen's status," he said. "Father Finn was given assurances that Father Vonnahmen was no longer in a directing capability at Golden Frontier, that he had been removed from the board, and he decided to allow advertising again."

Finn did not return calls seeking comment.

Vonnahmen has denied the accusations of sexual abuse. Craig Simoneaux, Golden Frontier's director, said Vonnahmen retired in the summer of 2002 and stepped down from the board of directors of Golden Frontier's parent organization, the non-profit Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage. Vonnahmen still acts as "a consultant" to the travel agency but has no say in day-to-day operations, Simoneaux said.

"He's retired, but from time to time we have questions about what to do in certain situations or logistics," he said. "It's mostly behind-the-scenes work."

Still traveling

But at least three people who went on tours organized by the agency paint a different picture. Francis Andres, of Elm Grove, Wis., said that he and his wife toured Mexico for 10 days in February and that Vonnahmen and the Rev. Larry Anschutz, pastor of Church of the Ascension in Mount Olive, Ill., were the tour's leaders.

In a separate interview, Carl Wieschhaus, of Florissant, confirmed that Vonnahmen was on the same trip. "He said he was retired, but he did a lot of the talking," Wieschhaus said. "He loves to talk and describe things to people."

The Rev. Rene DuFour, a priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate order in Belleville, has served as a chaplain on Golden Frontier tours. He said Vonnahmen helped lead a trip to southern Italy in November.

"Technically, it is my understanding that he is no longer in charge of the organization," said DuFour. "I think he just enjoys going."

DuFour said he traveled for free but did not know if Vonnahmen had the same arrangement with Golden Frontier.

Simoneaux said Vonnahmen did not lead tours or act as a tour chaplain, but did "accompany some trips" in "a behind-the-scenes role" as an adviser. "It's not a normal thing," he said. "It's minimal."

Simoneaux also said Vonnahmen volunteered his services on such trips, and did not pay his way. "We take care of that," he said.

Belleville Bishop James Patrick Keleher put Vonnahmen on administrative leave in 1993 after allegations that the priest sexually abused minors in the 1980s, some at Camp Ondessonk, a youth camp operated by the Belleville diocese. Vonnahmen appealed his removal as pastor to the Vatican, which ruled in the diocese's favor.

The Dec. 2 issue of the Review featured a large ad for Golden Frontier, which runs trips ranging from pilgrimages to Rome and cruises on the Mediterranean to bus excursions around the United States. Rygelski would not say how much Golden Frontier spent on advertising in the Review. But based on the Review's ad-rate sheet, the Dec. 2 ad probably cost Golden Frontier $800 to $1,000.

Rygelski said the agency advertised about twice a month in the Review. He said that in the three years since the archdiocese reversed its decision to ban Golden Frontier's advertising, the newspaper had never received a complaint about the ads or the agency.

Few papers run ads

Other diocesan newspapers that stopped accepting Golden Frontier's ads in 2002 - including those from the dioceses of Belleville and Chicago - have not resumed selling ad space to the agency.

Kelly Martin, advertising director of the Jefferson City diocesan newspaper, said the Missourian had never accepted advertising from Golden Frontier. Joan Ward, circulation manager for the Mirror in Springfield-Cape Girardeau said the newspaper once accepted advertising from Golden Frontier, but hadn't for some years.

Kathie Sass, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., said that although the diocese stopped running Golden Frontier's ads in the 1990s, it resumed running them for a short time when it was between bishops, in 1999. It stopped running the ads again soon after Bishop George J. Lucas took over in October 1999.

Tim Walter, director of advertising for the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said that his paper had run Golden Frontier's ads in the past but that the newspaper had not known about the agency's affiliation with Vonnahmen.

Vonnahmen could not be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the Belleville Diocese would not confirm if it had asked the Vatican to laicize Vonnahmen, but did say the priest's case has been before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since last spring. Officially, Vonnahmen is considered on administrative leave. Under the terms of the U.S. bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a priest must be removed from ministry if his bishop investigates and finds the allegations against him to be credible.


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