Woman Alleges Abuse, Sues Diocese, Priest

By Robert Goodrich
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [Missouri]
March 3, 1995

A woman identified only as "Sue Doe" filed suit Thursday against the Rev. Robert J. Vonnahmen and the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, claiming he sexually abused her on "various occasions" starting in 1961 when she was 6 years old.

The suit was filed in Circuit Court in Belleville. It asks for more than $ 15,000, the amount required for the case to get a jury trial, plus $ 5 million in punitive damages and costs.

Three men have previously sued Vonnahmen. Two say he sexually abused them at Camp Ondessonk, a diocese-affiliated camp in deep Southern Illinois. The third claims Vonnahmen required sex in exchange for employment as a tour guide with Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage Inc.

Vonnahmen has denied the allegations.

Reached by phone Thursday at Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage - also known as Golden Frontier - Vonnahmen said this about the latest allegation: "I don't know anything about it. It's a shock."

The Rev. James Margason, vicar general for the Belleville Diocese, said he had yet to see the suit and could not comment. Diocesan policy is to withhold comment on pending suits.

"Sue Doe" claims in her suit that she was sexually abused at St. Phillips Church in East St. Louis, where Vonnahmen was associate pastor.

She says Vonnahmen supervised youths at the church, and would arrange for her to come to the rectory, "where he used his position as priest and pastor to force sexual intercourse."

According to the suit, Doe has other vague but frightening memories. They include something about a church at Camp Ondessonk, it says, but she has been unable to determine the cause.

The entire case apparently is based on repressed memory allegations. It says she did not recall any sex abuse until March 1993.

The suit accuses the diocese of negligence. It says that "at least one fellow priest of Vonnahmen's and a nun were briefly present during Vonnahmen's sexual abuse sessions with plaintiff." It says Vonnahmen told the nun, "Go away; I am not finished yet."

Doe claims she has suffered distress, shock, embarrassment, disgrace and humiliation, loss of self-esteem and enjoyment of life - plus loss of income and expenses for medical and psychological treatment.

She is joined by her husband "John Doe" as co-plaintiff. They were married in 1975. The suit says their marriage has suffered from the effects of her having been abused.

Vonnahmen is one of seven priests and a deacon in the Belleville diocese who have been permanently removed from active ministries over sexual misconduct. Three additional priests are under investigation and are on administrative leave.

One priest, the Rev. Daniel Friedman, has been cleared and returned to active ministry.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, who heads the diocese, also is reviewing Vonnahmen's involvement in Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage to see if it violates church rules. The 8-year-old nonprofit corporation conducts pilgrimages to places of religious interest.


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