Light shines out of darkness: Years later, victims of Catholic Church sex abuse scandal encourage healing

By Molly Parker
April 23, 2017

Brianna Pay for The Southern

Drawing by Brianna Pay, For The Southern

OZARK — Paul Wesselmann remembers well the day he made the decision to reach out for help for the sexual abuse he endured as a young teen. It was 1994 — the year "Forrest Gump" was buzzing as the must-see movie of the summer. Wesselmann, then a young man in his 20s, went to see it alone. On the way to the grocery store after leaving the theater, he had to pull over because he was sobbing so hard.

It was that famous scene where Forrest came looking for Jenny because she didn’t get on the bus for school that morning that rattled him to the core. As Jenny’s father stumbles drunk outside with a flask in his hand and yelling for his daughter, Jenny tells Forrest to run. They head out into the cornfield behind her Alabama shack as her father chases after her, and she hits her knees and says, “Pray with me, Forrest,” and then begins to chant, “Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far, far away from here.”

The implication made in the movie — expressed through Forrest Gump’s naiveté; he described Jenny’s father as “a very loving man” — was that young Jenny wanted to get away because her father was sexually molesting her and her sisters. Wesselmann was struck by how much he related to the character’s desire to be transported from that horrid abuse — as it happened in real time, and the many times after that it played like a broken record in his head.

Shortly afterward, Wesselmann said he picked up the phone and scheduled an appointment to see a counselor. He realized that he could no longer shove into the dark reaches of his soul the tragedy he endured as a young teenager at Camp Ondessonk in the early- to mid-1980s.

There, as a camp counselor and trainee, Wesselmann, who grew up in Carbondale, said he was molested and raped between the ages of 15 and 17 by Father Robert Vonnahmen, the camp’s founder and longtime director, and an assistant director — both of whom are long removed from the camp.

Without excusing what was allowed to transpire there, Wesselmann stressed that the people who perpetuated the abuse, and the others who allowed it to happen, have not been affiliated with the camp since the mid-1980s. Today, Wesselmann said he believes the camp is in good hands, and is a place that offers many wonderful opportunities for young boys and girls to enjoy the outdoors while developing self-esteem and self-reliance. Wesselmann said he understands that many people have cherished memories about the summers they spent at Camp Ondessonk, and he counts himself among them.

'I was just a kid' 

At present, Wesselmann lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is known as the Ripples Guy for the motivational talks he gives to businesses, schools and associations that are based on the concept that one positive action can create ripples of others.

He credits the many skills and traits developed during the nine summers he spent at Camp Ondessonk as a camper, and later a counselor, with many of his personal and professional successes in adulthood.

And despite that many of his positive memories are overshadowed by the abuse he endured, Wesselmann still calls it “one of my favorite places on the planet” — as he put it in a letter to the Catholic Church a few years ago stating his case for the church to continue covering the cost of his therapy.

It is that juxtaposition of the good and evil surrounding the wooded, rustic campsite in the Shawnee National Forest in rural Johnson County that has made healing so excruciatingly painful and challenging, Wesselmann said.

“One of the reasons these memories are so awful is that they were created when I was just a kid. I randomly relive these moments of feeling so confused and so alone and so terrified,” Wesselmann said this week in an interview with The Southern conducted via email and by phone.

“These memories are disturbing not only because I didn't LIKE what was happening to me — they are so much worse because I was too young to really UNDERSTAND what was happening to me (emphasis is Wesselmann’s).

“It seemed logical to my adolescent mind that it happened because of something I did wrong or that I somehow deserved what happened.

“Even though I’m almost 50 years old, and even though I’ve had over 20 years of therapy that has been helpful in many ways, these thoughts and feelings still echo in my soul. And there are still times when I believe them.”

Lessons learned from tragedy 

Wesselmann said he agreed to speak out about the horror of child sex abuse as part of The Southern Illinoisan’s month-long April series in recognition of National Child Abuse Awareness Month because he believes what happened in Southern Illinois should not be forgotten.

By speaking out, Wesselmann said his intention is not to inflict pain or shame on the church or camp, but rather, so that lessons can be learned from it and that such a tragedy of systemic abuse and widespread dismissal and cover up is never repeated — by the Catholic Church or any other organization. And so that people may understand the depth of the damage that sexual abuse inflicts upon a child long after they are grown, even in some cases long after the perpetrator has died.

And of equal importance to him, Wesselmann said he hopes his story may provide some sense of comfort to someone else going through a similar situation, and give them the hope and strength to get the help they need to move forward in life if they haven’t yet taken that step.

Victims of sexual abuse live with that horror for a lifetime, Wesselmann said. That’s especially true for people victimized while they are children, before they have the capacity to understand what is happening, and particularly when the abuse occurs at the hands of a trusted and admired adult, as is most often the case in child sex abuse cases. Rarely is the abuse perpetuated by a stranger.

Vonnahmen, despite that he was never formally charged with any crimes, is widely regarded as one of this region’s most notorious alleged child predators. That said, the child sex abuse epidemic stretches far beyond Vonnahmen and the Catholic Church.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services data indicate that child sex abuse in the region is a longstanding and widespread problem. As is the case with abuse and neglect rates overall, child sex abuse rates in Southern Illinois also are much higher than the statewide average — double or triple the rates in some regional counties. Wesselmann said that if his story touches the heart of just one victim, he will consider the difficulty of sharing it well worth it.

“When I cross paths with adults who are abuse survivors, or adults who are trying to help children who they believe were abused, I tell them the bad news and the good news,” Wesselmann said. “The bad news is that childhood sex abuse is soul-crushing, especially when committed by adults in positions of power that we trusted.

“And the earlier the abuse begins and the more frequent it happens, the deeper the scar tissue runs. The good news is that scars are a sign of healing as much as they are a sign of injury. There are many good resources and therapies out there that have provided significant healing to abuse victims. The best news is that it turns out that we humans are remarkably resilient creatures.”

Untangling dark thoughts 

After he was abused as a teenager, Wesselmann said one of the most difficult personal issues he had to sort through came when, as a young man, he acknowledged to himself that he was gay, even before coming out to his friends and family. Once he acknowledged that fact internally, Wesselmann said he lost the will to live. The next week, Wesselmann said he was hospitalized after his first of what would become multiple suicide attempts.

Wesselmann said he didn’t want to live because he had developed a distorted belief — based on the abuse he endured as a child — that if he was gay, that meant he would eventually molest other teenagers as he had been molested.

Wesselmann said that even though he had zero desires in his heart or mind to do that, he assumed that he would have no choice but to eventually morph into a pedophile, and that’s why he wanted to take his life — he assumed it would be better to be dead than to end up like his perpetrators. It wasn’t until months of therapy that he was able to untangle these dark thoughts, he said. Over time, he came to understand that just because something evil was done to him, that in no way meant evil lived inside of him, and that being gay had nothing at all to do with pedophilia.

“I didn’t really experience it as a burden or trauma at first … it just seemed a normal part of life because that was the life I knew,” Wesselmann said of the feelings he experienced as a young man in the early years after the abuse ended. “I think the most damaging outcome of the actual abuse was assuming that my feelings of attraction to other guys was somehow related to what happened to me, and the fear that I myself could/would become a predator terrified me for years — well into adulthood in fact. The church’s concealment of the abuse contributed to the shame I felt, and made it tough to trust and respect others.”

'It was life-changing' 

Another individual who said he was raped at the camp in the mid-1980s also wanted to tell his story, but anonymously. The 47-year-old man asked only to be referred to as JT. He lives in Southern Illinois, but the newspaper is withholding his hometown to protect his identity. The newspaper interviewed JT in March in his therapist’s office in Carbondale. His story further illustrates the lasting trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

“I was a child. I was 14. I thought I was going to the most wonderful place in the world, Camp Ondessonk,” he said, recalling the events that shattered his life. “For me, what happened was not wonderful in any way. It was life-changing.”

JT described being sexually attacked by Vonnahmen while he was a counselor in training in mid-June, 1984. JT said other camp leaders knew about the abuse, to him and others, and did nothing. JT also said he wanted to come forward with his story because he knows many others out there are struggling as he is, and he wants them to know they are not alone.

Into adulthood, JT said he suffers night terrors — which he describes as far worse than nightmares.

“I literally sleep anywhere from two to three hours a night,” he said. “I have problems eating because I’m so nervous. You feel like you’re on the outside of the world just looking in. You can’t engage and you don’t know why.”

JT said that one of the many frustrating things about the situation is that it didn’t seem as though as much national press attention was paid to Vonnahmen, what happened at Camp Ondessonk and in other Southern Illinois parishes, even though the sex abuse scandal hit particularly hard here. In total, 13 priests and one prominent deacon were removed from their pastoral duties in the 1990s from the Belleville Diocese, which oversees parishes in roughly the bottom third of the state.

“But my God, what happened here was a tragedy, a huge tragedy,” JT said. JT said he only came forward with his story to the church last year, in April 2016, after therapy helped him gain the courage to contact the diocese. Looking forward, he encourages people to reach out for professional help, and not be afraid or ashamed to do so regardless of where they are in their healing journey.

Vonnahmen defrocked in 2007 

Though Vonnahmen was removed from his position as director of Camp Ondessonk in 1985, shortly after Wesselmann and others came forward privately with allegations, Vonnahmen was allowed to continue his role as a priest at a church in Elizabethtown after that.

It wasn’t for another eight years until the church found him unfit for ministry and removed him from his priestly duties; it was 22 years later that he was laicized, in 2007.

Meanwhile, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville, to which Vonnahmen belonged, has funded and continues to pay out large sums in court settlements and voluntary payments to fund therapy for victims of Vonnahmen’s and other pedophile priests who were assigned to parishes throughout the Metro East and Southern Illinois. Both Wesselmann and JT said the church continues to pay for their therapy services.

Wesselmann said he is thankful, on one hand, that the church has made these payments, but also continues to press for the church leadership to confess publicly and apologize for what transpired. That includes not only the abuse, but the fact that those at the top of the diocese’s hierarchy were informed about what was going on, but did not act with enough expedience or in a manner that indicated they understood and acknowledged the gravity of the situation, both Wesselmann and JT said.

While private acknowledgements and apologies have been made to Wesselmann by church leaders over the years about the fact that they didn’t do more or act sooner, he said it would mean more, and provide a greater level of healing, if the apology were made public.

“I’ve never gotten the sense that the Catholic Church as a whole has recognized its need to publicly confess these sins even though its own holy sacrament of reconciliation is a core tenet of their faith,” Wesselmann said. “I’m confident their public statements could seem more authentic and therefore be more cathartic if they came from leaders who had the capacity to comprehend and fully acknowledge the spiritual holocaust the church unleashed on so many of its own members’ souls — made significantly worse by concealment and denials.”

For example, he said, Vonnahmen should not have been allowed to continue his role as a priest after being removed from the camp in 1985. And he should not have been allowed the ability to oversee a religious-based nonprofit, Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage, which operated a travel agency and led trips to religiously significant sites worldwide, and through which the San Damiano Retreat Center was built on an expansive piece of property between Hardin and Pope counties. In the early 2000s, when questioned about Vonnahmen's activities by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a church leader stated that Vonnahmen had been asked to note in his advertising materials that his group has no ties to the diocese. 

Despite the terror Wesselman and JT say Vonnahmen inflicted on them and others, Vonnahmen lived on that beautiful piece of tax-free property in what was essentially his own personal luxurious retirement villa that offered stunning views of the Ohio River. The church did not return a phone call seeking comment by deadline as to the concerns raised by Wesselman and JT. 

Mixed emotions at Vonnahmen's death 

Vonnahmen died on May 8, 2016. The church did not note his passing, but Wesselmann and others did.

The evening he learned of Vonnahmen’s death, Wesselmann posted the news on his Facebook page with a statement that ended: “His passing may be another opportunity to mourn the more carefree childhoods that many of us never got to experience, and to acknowledge that the world is more complicated than we would like to believe.”

After years of therapy and internal work, Wesselmann said that while there is no way to entirely erase the depth of pain that comes from being sexually abused as a young person, healing is possible. He wants other victims who may be at different places in their healing journey to know that a life filled with moments of joy and happiness and peace that surpasses understanding still is possible.

Lately, he counts his blessing for having picked up the phone years ago and scheduling an appointment with a counselor after finding himself frighteningly depressed by that scene in "Forrest Gump," and not really understanding why. Through therapy and over time, the pain has stayed in remission for longer and longer periods of time, he said.

“There are still moments, though, when pain re-emerges like a fresh wound. Something as subtle as the sound of certain voices or even smells can transport me back to a time when I felt really alone and afraid,” he said.

Wesselmann said that a few employees of the diocese have privately given sincere apologies. That, coupled with the fact that the church has covered the cost of more than 20 years of therapy has been “significantly helpful.” But he remains frustrated that the only public statements about the abuse he endured and reported was one that amounted to a denial. Publicly, the church has never offered an alternative or corrective statement to the only ones ever made publicly on the ordeal.

Therefore, as Wesselmann sees it, the church maintains its original assertions — that the camp leadership in the mid-1980s were removed from their posts because of financial issues and that the abuse Wesselmann reported to them years ago amounted only to “someone touching me on the knee,” as he said a church official relayed to the Belleville News-Democrat in the late 1990s — despite vast accusations and private statements made to the contrary.

“Observing up-close the capacity of several church leaders to publicly deny the truth while privately acknowledging my pain was frustrating. And heartbreaking,” he said. “That betrayal of trust, and the continued public denials of my story that they had privately accepted as true, makes it hard for me to trust others — especially authority figures.”

Wesselmann said he has come to terms with the fact that there are some answers or acknowledgements about the abuse he and others endured that he may never get. Wesselmann said he held out some small hope over the years that Vonnahmen might write him a letter of apology. When that letter never came and Vonnahmen died, Wesselmann wrote that letter himself — as if it were from Vonnahmen — and included all the things he hoped his abuser would tell him in repenting. It proved to be a cathartic exercise, Wesselmann said. It’s one of the many small ways he’s helped himself move on — one day at a time.

“I think what we hope for most is sustainable peace in the midst of inescapable pain,” he said. “When you’re haunted by untamed ghosts of the past, you don’t really get to decide when you’ll have to relive some of the most terrifying moments of your life.”

But Wesselmann also added that he has found some peace from recognizing the abuse did happen, and that he is not alone. “Lots of other people have survived really tough stuff and figured out how to keep moving forward,” he said.

“It turns out that even after extreme darkness, there is still life to be lived, joy to be felt, and happiness to be experienced. And that is worth remembering.”




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