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Survivor Narratives

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.

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*