Man Sues Priest, Alleges Sexual Abuse in 1981

By Tim Poor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 20, 1993

A couple from Springfield, Ill., confronted a Catholic priest two years ago with suspicions that he had sexually abused their son, but the priest denied it, the couple said Thursday. The priest, the Rev. Robert J. Vonnahmen, introduced them to his "confessor," the Rev. James Calhoun, who assured them that Vonnahmen was telling the truth, the couple said. They said their son, Stephen H. McCaffrey, told them the full story of his abuse in March after the Belleville Diocese relieved Vonnahmen, Calhoun and two other priests from their duties pending investigations of other allegations of sexual misconduct. On Thursday, McCaffrey, 25, announced that he had filed a $3.5 million suit against Vonnahmen and the diocese. The suit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Benton, Ill., said he was abused twice in 1981, when McCaffrey was a 13-year-old at Camp Ondessonk, a camp the diocese owned in Johnson County, Ill. Vonnahmen was the camp director. The suit says that on one occasion, Vonnahmen showed McCaffrey pornography and rubbed against him and that later that week, he sodomized the boy. Vonnahmen threatened to kill McCaffrey's favorite horse and to start a fire, blaming it on the boy, if McCaffrey told anyone about the encounters, the suit says. It says the diocese should be held responsible because it knew or should have known that Vonnahmen was a child molester. Sister Michelle Emmerich, a spokeswoman for the diocese, declined to comment Thursday on the suit. David Wells, an attorney for the diocese, said he would conduct "a very thorough investigation of the facts and respond accordingly."

Wells said the diocese replaced Vonnahmen as the camp director in 1984 or 1985 for reasons unrelated to allegations of abuse. Neither Vonnahmen nor Calhoun could be reached. At a news conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Union Station, McCaffrey said the incident "has really shattered my faith in people."

But he said he was no longer angry at Vonnahmen. "I look at him more as a person who needs help. I pity him," said McCaffrey, now an insurance salesman in Albuquerque, N.M. His parents, James and Germaine McCaffrey, said that in 1991, they heard allegations about abuse at the camp and asked their son about it. He said he didn't want to talk about it. James McCaffrey said he and his wife then confronted Vonnahmen. "He denied ever touching Steve," McCaffrey said, and introduced him to Calhoun, who vouched for him. McCaffrey said that although he believed his suspicions were well-founded, he didn't tell diocesan officials about the allegations. Stephen McCaffrey said that the incidents affected him deeply and were responsible for trouble he had in high school, college and the Air Force. He said he repressed his recollections of abuse until December 1992, when "the onslaught of emotions of what had happened came back to me."

In March, his parents read him news accounts of Vonnahmen's removal and he told them what had happened, he said. The Belleville diocese has since concluded its investigations of Vonnahmen, of Elizabethtown, and Calhoun, of Germantown, and two other priests and removed them from active ministry. Investigations of two more priests and a deacon on similar charges are pending. Illinois law requires that suits alleging childhood sexual abuse be filed within two years after the victim discovers that the abuse had happened. The news conference and other publicity surrounding McCaffrey's suit were carefully orchestrated by his attorneys and by David Clohessy, a St. Louisan who is active in Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests, a national organization. Representing McCaffrey is Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer from St. Paul, Minn., who says he has filed more than 200 suits on behalf of people who say they have been abused by priests.


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