Robert J. Vonnahmen
Documents the Diocese of Belleville produced to the Attorney General’s investigators reveal Father Robert Vonnahmen sexually abused as many as 23 children while ministering there between 1956 and 1993. In those same records, the diocese represented it first received notice of child sex abuse allegations against Vonnahmen in November 1992. But diocesan records also reveal allegations that Vonnahmen’s fellow priests implored the diocese’s bishop to investigate him for child sex abuse as early as 1968 or 1969. These priests passed on reports of misconduct with children attending a diocesan summer camp operated under Vonnahmen’s direction. The bishop failed to act. Similar suspicions were raised again to a new bishop in 1976 or 1977—and then again in 1985 to another new bishop who finally removed Vonnahmen from the camp. Even so, the diocese did not remove Vonnahmen from his longtime parish ministry at Saint Joseph in Elizabethtown until 1993—a quarter of a century after the first child sex abuse allegations surfaced. Such is the sad chronology of Vonnahmen’s tenure in the Diocese of Belleville, where almost two dozen children suffered at the serial abuser’s hands.
One of Vonnahmen’s survivors, “Andrew,” met the priest at Camp Ondessonk, the diocesan facility in Johnson County where Vonnahmen served as director for decades. Andrew was a summer camper there between 1981 and 1984. As he explained to the Attorney General’s investigators, Vonnahmen routinely singled him out for special treatment. In 1984, Andrew was a counselor in training, which meant he was housed alone in an isolated cabin. It was there that Andrew woke one night to find Vonnahmen on top of him, trying to “jam his tongue down” the boy’s throat. Andrew has blocked out the details of that forced encounter from his memory, but he does recall finding blood on his underwear the next morning. At the time, Andrew told no one what Vonnahmen had done to him. “I was terrified of what might happen to me if I did tell,” Andrew explains, “because of who he was.” Andrew may have been spared Vonnahmen’s abuse had the diocese acted upon the reports it received in 1968 or 1969 and then again in 1976 or 1977. But the diocese did not act, and so Vonnahmen continued on at Camp Ondessonk until 1985, sexually abusing children almost every summer along the way according to the diocese’s own records.
Andrew recently contacted the diocese about Vonnahmen’s abuse. The diocese neither acknowledged the crime nor apologized for it. Because of the abuse, Andrew has had issues trusting men in authority and has struggled with an opioid addiction. “The man was a monster,” he says. At the time of the abuse, Andrew felt he had nowhere to turn. “What was I supposed to do? The man who was my confessor was also my rapist.”
“What was I supposed to do? The man who was my confessor was also my rapist.”
The Diocese of Belleville finally removed Vonnahmen from ministry in 1993, after more child sex abuse allegations surfaced against him. Through it all, diocesan records reveal reports of as many as 16 children being abused by Vonnahmen after the first reports of wrongdoing surfaced in 1968 or 1969—and as many as nine children being abused by Vonnahmen after additional reports were made in 1976 or 1977. Because of the diocese’s inaction, these children were left on their own—to try to heal as best they could from horrific abuse ranging from fondling and kissing to violent oral and anal sex.