Defrocked priest accused again of molestation

News-DemocratApril 1, 2014 

AP GRAPHIC

A Breese man filed a lawsuit against the Belleville Catholic diocese alleging a priest sexually abused him when he was a boy attending church camp in the early 1970s.

The man, referred to as J. Christ in court documents, alleges former priest Robert J. Vonnahmen abused him at Camp Ondessonk in Ozark, Ill., during the summers of 1970 and 1971. The name appeared as J. Christ in court documents to provide anonymity.

Vonnahmen and representatives of the Belleville diocese could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The abuse allegedly happened while Vonnahmen was a priest and supervisor of the camp. The Catholic youth camp was co-founded by Vonnahmen in 1959.

In the early 1990s, Vonnahmen was one of 14 priests and a deacon the Belleville Diocese removed for alleged sexual abuse of children. Only Vonnahmen was formally defrocked by the Vatican.

Vonnahmen was removed as director of the camp in 1985. The Belleville diocese removed him from the ministry in 1993 and the Vatican defrocked him in 2007.

The lawsuit alleges the diocese failed to protect the plaintiff, failed to investigate the complaints of other minors regarding Vonnahmen, and failed to remove Vonnahmen from the camp and church when it should have known he was a danger to young boys.

Jeff Deutschman, of the law firm Deutschman and Associates in Chicago, is representing the plaintiff. He said his client wants privacy and declined to comment. Deutschman added that the fact Vonnahmen was defrocked shows the lawsuit has merit.

"So obviously, this is a very valid claim that will be seriously handled by the diocese," Deutschman said.

The plaintiff claims he repressed the sexual abuse until memories resurfaced in December 2013, according to court documents.

"We see that in a ton of people and the law also supports it. The law has been changed several times to accommodate these terrible situations happening around the country and around the world," Deutschman said.

The lawsuit was filed March 17 in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

"We applaud this brave victim and hope his legal action brings him some degree of healing," said David Clohessy, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Similar lawsuits in the past against the Belleville diocese have resulted in substantial settlements and awards.

In 2008, James Wisniewski, of Champaign, won a $5 million award in a lawsuit against the Belleville Catholic Diocese. A jury found Wisniewski was molested by a priest when he was a 13-year-old altar boy at St. Theresa's Parish in Salem.

In 2009, a victim identified as "John Doe" received $1.2 million.

The amount of financial settlements in three other lawsuits were not disclosed in settlements in 2012. The alleged sexual abuse in the cases occurred more than 30 years ago.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.