A priest scandal rocked the Belleville Diocese 30 years ago. How have things changed?
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
What a difference 30 years makes.
The watchdog organization Voice of the Faithful recently ranked the Catholic Diocese of Belleville the seventh most “financially transparent” diocese in the United States.
The lay organization’s 2022 report states that, while financial transparency wouldn’t have prevented clergy sexual abuse in the past, it would have kept the Catholic Church from secretly paying cash settlements to families of child victims in exchange for their silence.
“The horror of clergy sexual abuse ... would have been reported, not covered up, and abusers would have been called to account for their crimes,” the report stated. “Victims of serial abusers would have been protected.”
Recognition for transparency in the Belleville Diocese is significant, particularly considering its reputation in the early 1990s, when victims, advocates, journalists and others complained that it had kept clergy sexual abuse hidden from the public for decades.
The Belleville News-Democrat published its first story on the issue in February 1993. By 2002, the diocese, which covers 28 counties in southern Illinois, had removed 15 priests and one deacon from ministry.
“I think it’s safe to say at that time no diocese lost a higher percentage of its priests more quickly or more publicly than Belleville,” said David Clohessy, an activist then and now with the Missouri chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
“For those nine years, Belleville was a total outlier.”
The landscape changed in 2002, when the Boston Globe published its investigative series on how the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston had allowed scores of priests to continue in ministry despite sexual-abuse allegations, often moving them around from parish to parish.
The series won a Pulitzer Prize for public service and later inspired the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight.”
The series also opened the floodgates of allegations and lawsuits against Catholic dioceses across the country and helped force the church to change the way cases were handled.
Outside forces soon emerged. Voice of the Faithful formed in 2002 with the goal of making the Catholic Church more accountable. Last year, 115 dioceses provided information for its report on financial transparency.
The Bishop Accountability website was created in 2003. Today, it posts names and histories for 7,655 accused Catholic clergy, as well as news clippings, reports, witness and survivor accounts, lawsuits and other information.
“We are not an advocacy organization, and we take no position on possible remedies for the crisis,” its website states. “We are a library open to everyone looking to understand the problem of clergy abuse of children.”
Acknowledging the problem
Belleville and most other U.S. dioceses now publish running lists of clergy who have been “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors or engaging in serious sexual misconduct with adults.
“The Diocese is providing this list ... with the prayerful intention and hope that individuals who may have been affected by childhood sexual abuse will find it helpful to their healing and recovery,” according to a statement on Belleville’s list, which was first published in 2018.
Many dioceses, including Belleville, also have review boards that investigate abuse allegations and recommend actions on reporting, removal or reinstatement of priests.
Belleville’s review process, employee training requirements and other procedures are outlined in a 36-page Child Protection Policy on the diocese’s website.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to have a perfect system, but I do think it’s important to have a process and to follow that process,” said Bishop Michael McGovern, who came to Belleville in 2020.
“We certainly want to make sure that we’re creating an environment where there’s safety for children and where victims, even if they were harmed years ago, feel that they can come forward and share their stories and that they’re respected and treated with care.”
The process also must be fair to clergy, McGovern said, noting that they have a right to defend themselves against potentially false allegations.
Clohessy agrees that the Catholic Church has made improvements in the past 30 years, but he argues that progress has been slow and often forced; that bishops still have too much control; and that few leaders have faced consequences for “enabling” abusive priests.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who was widely blamed for covering up the abuse in Boston, continued serving the Vatican in Rome after he resigned as archbishop during the 2002 scandal.
“In a nutshell, things have changed far less than people realize, and the real change has come outside of and despite the Catholic hierarchy,” Clohessy said.
The church continues to fight proposed mandates on the filing of police reports in abuse cases and statute-of-limitations changes that would allow more civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions, according to Clohessy.
Landmark lawsuit in Louisana
Most sexual-abuse allegations against Catholic clergy in the United States were handled privately before the mid-1980s, when a family refused to settle a civil lawsuit filed against the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, on behalf of their son.
A criminal case ensued, making national news, and the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe admitted to molesting 37 children in hundreds of incidents between 1972 and 1983. He accepted a plea deal and served time in prison.
‘’We don’t want to give the impression that it’s a rampant problem for the church, because it is not,” the Rev. Kenneth Doyle, spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Conference, told the New York Times in 1985. “But even one case is too many.”
Eight years later, the Catholic Diocese of Belleville found itself facing a scandal of its own.
In a BND story on Feb. 20, 1993, then-Bishop James Keleher acknowledged that the diocese had received complaints of priests sexually abusing minors. Some had been moved to different parishes as a result.
Then-reporter Doug Kaufman requested an interview with Keleher after a 39-year-old man told him that a priest had raped him as a teenager and that the diocese did nothing when he reported it years later. The man described how priests preyed on vulnerable children, scarring their lives with shame and mistrust.
“I believed what he was saying,” Kaufman said recently. “He just seemed like a legitimate source, and there was probably something I heard in his voice that convinced me that we needed to look into it.”
In the next three months, the Belleville Diocese removed six priests from parishes and one deacon from assignment due to sexual-abuse allegations, most dating back 10 to 25 years.
When officials announced the “resignations” at church services, some parishioners gasped or cried. Others sat in stunned silence. Kaufman remembers getting phone calls on his home answering machine from people upset about the newspaper coverage.
“(Reporting on priest abuse) wasn’t that common back then,” he said. “We got a lot of reaction that was essentially ‘kill the messenger.’ They were very hostile toward us.”
By this time, Clohessy was a key figure in SNAP’s development. His once-repressed memories of being abused by a priest as a boy in Jefferson City, Missouri, are part of its online history.
Because Clohessy had moved to St. Louis, just across the Mississippi River from Belleville, he became the diocese’s ever-present adversary, talking to the media and inviting victims to call.
“Every time (the BND) published a story, our phone started ringing,” he said.
Details emerge in early cases
The first priest removed from ministry in the Belleville Diocese was the Rev. Jerome Ratermann, 61, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Belleville, on March 5, 1993.
The BND later reported that the diocese had been paying $299 monthly truck payments and criminal-court fines and restitution for a former Clinton County official living in Carlyle. He maintained that he had been abused by Ratermann as a young man.
“Our hearts go out to and we are anxious to help anyone who has been abused,” Monsignor Bernard Sullivan, then Belleville’s vicar general, told a Centralia newspaper, insisting that the financial assistance wasn’t a bribe.
The diocese removed three more priests in March 1993, including the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, 62, founder and former longtime director of Camp Ondessonk, a summer camp in Ozark for Catholic children. He was accused of sexual misconduct with a minor 25 years before.
Two more priests and a deacon were gone by that June, when Keleher was named archbishop in Kansas City.
Keleher’s replacement, Bishop Wilton Gregory, now a cardinal in Washington, D.C., led the Belleville Diocese for 11 years and served as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004.
Gregory developed a national reputation for speaking out against clergy sexual abuse and helping to implement reforms, but the Belleville Diocese lacked transparency under his leadership, according to Greg Edwards, BND editor at the time.
“It was like pulling teeth to even get them to talk about priest pedophilia, much less admit anything,” he said this month. “When we asked questions that were spot on, we were lied to.”
By the end of 1995, the newspaper had published more than 200 stories on the scandal, covering 13 clergy removed from ministry, several civil lawsuits against the diocese, reports of a “sex ring” operated out of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows gift shop and vehicle thefts by an alleged victim.
Some angry BND readers wrote letters to the editor or canceled their subscriptions.
“I can remember priests calling me and deriding what we were doing, accusing us of trying to destroy the church and being irresponsible,” Edwards said. “(Their position was), ‘This just isn’t true. These allegations at a minimum are blown way out of proportion and perhaps totally untrue.’”
The diocese removed another priest from ministry in 1998 and two more in 2002, bringing the total to 16 clergy before a 16-year gap in public cases.
Debate continues over lists
In 2018, then-Bishop Edward Braxton removed the Rev. Gerald Hechenberger, associate pastor of Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church in Mascoutah, who had been arrested for possession of child pornography and methamphetamine. He later pleaded guilty and died in prison at 56.
The same year, Braxton published the Belleville Diocese’s first list of credibly accused clergy.
In 2020, McGovern removed the Rev. Anthony Onyango due to allegations of “inappropriate conduct involving a minor.” The priest had been serving as administrator of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Albers and St. Damian Catholic Church in Damiansville.
That brought the total to 21 clergy on Belleville’s current list, including 17 priests and one deacon removed from ministry or assignment and three priests who died before being publicly identified.
By 2020, Catholic dioceses and orders in the United States had listed the names of 6,770 clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors or serious sexual misconduct with adults, according to a database compiled by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica.
Researchers emphasized that the amount of accompanying information varied widely from diocese to diocese.
“Some jurisdictions turn over far more specifics about problem priests — from where they worked to the number of their victims to the details of their wrongdoing — than others,” they stated.
Belleville’s first list included names and removal and/or death dates for accused clergy from its own diocese. Braxton later added parishes where each served, but not schools or hospitals, prompting criticism from SNAP.
Today, the list also identifies 21 clergy who served in southern Illinois for various periods of time before facing allegations in other dioceses or orders.
Over the years, SNAP has held periodic protests outside the Belleville chancery, demanding that more names and information be added to the list. Clohessy calls it “incomplete and inadequate.”
“It should, but does not, provide photos, assignment records, last known whereabouts, when abuse reports were made and other key details, so parents can better protect their kids and victims can better recover,” he said.
Child protection policies
When McGovern became bishop in 2020, his stated goals included learning about the history of clergy sexual abuse in Belleville, keeping children safe and addressing allegations with a process that’s fair to both victims and priests.
The Belleville Diocese has a Child Protection Services department with a hotline for sexual-abuse allegations. It also coordinates counseling and other services for victims, according to its website.
The Child Protection Policy requires background checks and annual online training for all employees who work with children.
“Whenever I ask people to do the training, I always say, ‘If we can spare one child from the horror of abuse, the whole thing is worth it, all the programs, all the effort,’” McGovern said.
Belleville’s scandal prompted the diocese to create a review board to investigate sexual-abuse allegations in 1993, a year after the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago took similar action. Their processes later served as a blueprint for other dioceses, according to McGovern.
Today, the 10 members of Belleville’s review board are appointed by the bishop, which Clohessy opposes in favor of decentralized control. Members include two clergy and eight other area residents, some trained in social work and similar fields.
The chairman is longtime Belleville attorney Michael Nester, who first volunteered for the job in 1993. He admits it “wasn’t pleasant.”
“I think there was a problem that the members of the review board understood existed, based upon the information that was shared with us, and we felt duty-bound to do the right thing,” he said.
“We thought it was the right thing for the victims, for the priests, for the diocese and ultimately for the Catholic Church.”
The board’s founding members had to develop bylaws and otherwise cover uncharted territory while dealing with a large number of investigations in a short period of time. It’s different today, Nester said, as the diocese “seldom” gets calls on the hotline.
Nester served under Keleher and Gregory and was reappointed by McGovern. He said the board works independently, free of institutional pressure, and behind closed doors to find the truth and protect the identity of victims, as well as priests who may be falsely accused.
“Inherent in the process ... is an element of privacy or confidentiality that we couldn’t ignore, and in fact if we did ignore it, the consequence would be that fewer people would be willing to come forward, and we want people to come forward with claims of abuse if they think that’s what happened,” Nester said.
Clergy facing allegations are asked to stay away from their parishes during the investigative process, according to McGovern. Board members determine if the allegations are credible and make recommendations on what action the bishop should take.
“Any allegation of abuse is reported to law enforcement if it involves a minor, and if we haven’t notified the (Illinois Department of Children and Family Services), they will notify DCFS,” McGovern said.
McGovern gave the Onyango case as an example of how the process works. He said the priest was asked to leave the parish within 12 hours of the allegation and go to a “monitored” setting, the review board met within 72 hours, and police and DCFS were notified.
Onyango was later “laicized” or returned to lay status permanently, making him no longer eligible to serve as a Catholic priest in any diocese.
What would Jesus do?
The Rev. Clyde Grogan — one of the few Belleville priests who spoke publicly in the 1990s to condemn clergy sexual abuse and call for reforms — believes the Catholic Church has made some progress in the past 30 years but isn’t yet where it needs to be.
Early on, leaders developed a habit of thinking about legal ramifications first and victim well-being second, according to Grogan, who’s now retired.
“The bishops contacted lawyers,” he said. “The bishops should have read the Gospel. What would Jesus have done? He would have gone to the kitchen tables of these families who were victimized and prayed with them, cried with them and asked what he could do to help.”
Grogan noted that resulting lawsuits bankrupted some dioceses and caused significant financial problems for others, not to mention the loss of trust among parishioners.
If the Catholic Church had owned up to the problem quickly, he said, the public would have been more understanding and supportive.
“The clergy sexual-abuse thing is never going to be over because it’s all predicated now on a priest coming forward and saying, ‘Yes, I victimized some people,’” Grogan said.
“We’ve always put the onus on the victims, and some of them have come forward, but I think a number of them haven’t because of the trauma and because of the fear. Part of their childhood was stolen.”
McGovern was serving as a parish priest in the Chicago Archdiocese in 2020, when Pope Francis appointed him as bishop. He had been mentioned in a 2013 book written by a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who visited and prayed with him as part of his recovery.
Grogan applauded word that McGovern recently had a conversation with a man in the Belleville Diocese with a similar experience. The man gave suggestions on how the church could better serve victims.
“It was very helpful to sit down with this man as he shared his story and pain and how he’s come through these years,” McGovern said of the meeting. “All he wanted was for me to listen to him. I certainly appreciated his courage and honesty.”
The number of Catholic parishioners in the Belleville Diocese has gone from 126,000 in 1990 to 123,000 in 2020, according to spokesman Monsignor John Myler. There are 87 priests, down from 146.
SNAP’s phone rings much less than it did in the 1990s, Clohessy said, but he avoids drawing conclusions on current levels of abuse, noting many victims wait years or decades before reporting it.
“Anecdotally, I believe that kids are slightly more likely to tell and parents are more likely to believe them and families are more apt to call police and police are more apt to investigate and judges and juries are more apt to convict and, in general, the public is more apt to believe abuse reports than before,” he said.
Clohessy maintains that there’s a big difference between the statements and reforms of Pope Francis, who declared “zero tolerance” for abusers last year, and what is taking place in dioceses.
McGovern said there’s always room for improvement, but he sees the Catholic Church “going in the right direction,” and he believes the Belleville Diocese is in a “good place.”
“I think we’re all aware of how painful this has been for people who were harmed in any way as children by someone who was meant to be a shepherd,” he said. “I think we always have to keep that in front of us. What do victims need in terms of a caring response? How do they find healing in their lives?”
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.