IL-Notorious southern IL predator priest dies; Victims respond
For immediate release: Wednesday, July 20
Local Catholic officials have kept hidden the passing of Robert J. Vonnahmen, one of Southern Illinois' most notorious pedophile priests. For decades, he
--ran a camp in Johnson County that attracted thousands of kids from across the Midwest,
--headed a Madison County-based tour and travel agency,
--worked in several southern Illinois parishes, and
--lived in Hardin County in what the Belleville News Democrat called “a sprawling, 2,600 square foot, $350,000 Mediterranean-style villa high above the Ohio River.”
A long time Golconda resident, he died in a nursing home in Highland Illinois on, or near, May 9 and his Catholic funeral was apparently held on May 12 in Elizabethtown Illinois where he was buried.
At least three bishops and dozens of Catholic officials ignored and enabled Vonnahmen's crimes for decades. He was one of Illinois' most egregious predators.
As recently as 2013, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson let Vonnahmen run ads in the Archdiocesan newspaper for the San Damiano Shrine which the defrocked child molester operated even though the Vatican defrocked Vonnahmen seven years earlier.
And as recently as 2014, another victim filed a civil abuse and cover up suit against Vonnahmen and his supervisors.
We call on Belleville Bishop Braxton to spread the word of Vonnahmen’s death through church bulletins, parish websites and pulpit announcements and beg others who saw, suspected or suffered his crimes to come forward.
And we call on Carlson to apologize for and explain his reckless support of this serial predator. How does he justify encouraging local Catholics, through the St. Louis Review newspaper, to visit and donate to a facility run by a proven predator?
Once again, Catholic officials stay silent about a predator. Once again, the feelings of his victims are disregarded while the comfort of his bishop is protected. The people Vonnahmen violated deserve to know that he can no longer hurt anyone. We hope his passing will bring some comfort to those he assaulted and betrayed.
We hope his passing will prompt others he hurt to finally get help, speak out and start healing.
No matter what church officials do or don’t do, we urge every single person who saw, suspected or suffered child sex crimes and cover ups in Catholic churches or institutions to protect kids by calling police, get help by calling therapists, expose wrongdoers by calling law enforcement, get justice by calling attorneys, and be comforted by calling support groups like ours. This is how kids will be safer, adults will recover, criminals will be prosecuted, cover ups will be deterred and the truth will surface.
Vonnahmen co-founded the camp in 1959 and ran it until he was removed as director in 1985. The Belleville diocese removed him from the ministry in 1993 because of child sex abuse reports. The Vatican defrocked him in 2007.
In 2007, the News Democrat reported that:
“Vonnahmen formerly led Camp Ondessonk (877-659-2267) in Southern Illinois (from the late 50s to the mid-80s), a popular Catholic children's summer camp. He also operated Golden Frontier Tours through a nonprofit operation called Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage Inc., which also operates a 2,500-acre shrine and resort — San Damiano — near Golconda in Pope County.”
“While Vonnahmen has said he is retired from the tour and shrine business, Pope County assessor's clerk Maureen Stafford said the laicized priest still resides in a tax-exempt $350,000 villa overlooking the Ohio River on the San Damiano retreat's grounds. Employees who answered the telephones at the retreat and at the travel business in Shiloh, said that Vonnahmen is seen regularly at both locations.”
Finally, our hearts go out especially to Stephen McCaffrey, who in the 1990s was the first to publicly discuss his abuse by Vonnahmen and file a federal court against him. The suit was dismissed in 1995 because of Illinois’ restrictive and predator-friendly statute of limitations.
(NOTE – Virtually every reference to Vonnahmen has been deleted. He’s mentioned briefly once on the Camp Ondessonk site:https://ondessonk.com/the-building-of-a-camp-1959/ But considerable information is available about him at BishopAccountability.org)
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. SNAP was founded in 1988 and has more than 22,000 members. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)
50 State AG Call for Grand Jury
Any investigation must be:
- independent of and separate from the church
- must have subpoena powers and ability to compel testimony under oath
Anything short of these criteria is a sham and whitewash.
In addition, write letters to the editor, make phone calls to politicians as they can apply pressure to keep them responsive to our demand. We need to make efforts to ensure that they follow up on what the state is doing to investigate these crimes.
The Attorneys General of forty states have inquired about the grand jury process in Pennsylvania. Let's get statewide investigations going in fifty states.
Note to Letter Writers
Use your own words and style of writing. Cut and paste from the templates as you wish. Include your experiences, whether as a survivor or as a member of the community. And relate your letter to the state you were abused in or state now living in.