From Victim to Survivor

News: Commentary
by Joseph M. Hanneman  •  •  April 2, 2020   

Years of rape by priest surpassed only by pain of rejection by the Church

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Quincy, Illinois — Father Aloysius J. Schwellenbach was a predatory homosexual whose crimes went beyond the pain he inflicted on former altar boy Robert O'Donnell. Schwellenbach also preyed on adult men.

Fr. Aloysius J. Schwellenbach, 1948

While preparing for a Mass of Christian Burial in the summer of 1980, Fr. Schwellenbach made a pass at his sacristan. "Father was just about all over me. I'll never forget it," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "He put his arm around me, holding me very close. I was in a cassock and everything. He said, 'Why don't you come over to my place in Philadelphia. You'd love it. You could stay Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We'd have a great time over there.'"

The man, who said he was familiar with Schwellenbach's reputation, told the priest he was too busy. "I'm just constantly working," the man said he told Schwellenbach. "I just can't do it." That was enough to keep Schwellenbach at bay, but he continued to pursue the man. Schwellenbach often stopped in the restaurant where the sacristan worked and kept "always asking me to come and stay a weekend," the man recalled. Schwellenbach would sit in the eatery, chomping on a cigar while watching the young man work.

'You Must Have Liked It'

O'Donnell, whose story we began in "The Wolf at 1019 Cedar," said he believes that account, and those of other men who suffered at the hands of priest sex abusers. One of his major struggles came when he was finally able to tell his parents about the years of abuse at the hands of Fr. Schwellenbach. After a tour in the U.S. Marines, O'Donnell decided it was finally time to tell his father and stepmother about the sexual abuse inflicted by their trusted friend, the former pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Quincy. Nothing prepared him for the response.

"I got the courage to tell them. It was Thanksgiving at my house. Food was cooking. Stepmom and Dad were sitting on the couch together. I said, 'I don't know if you ever suspected that Father Schwellenbach was molesting me,' " O'Donnell said. "'For the record, he was sexually abusing me from the first time I spent the night at his house.' Her reply was, 'You must have liked it because you kept going back.'" 

For the record, he was sexually abusing me from the first time I spent the night at his house.

"That was just what I needed, more rejection," O'Donnell said. "I thought, 'well they are taking no ownership of what happened.' I stood there for a few seconds and just turned around, shook my head and walked away."

The stepmother's statement was, if nothing else, quite stunning. On its face it seems cruel, devoid of any sense of the unintended complicity of the adults in the family. O'Donnell said he eventually got over the comment and forgave his parents, in part after realizing how society and the Church had been completely asleep on the issue of priestly sexual abuse.

Robert O'Donnell in 1979

As O'Donnell approached his senior year in high school, Schwellenbach could no longer intimidate him into acquiescence. The sexual abuse ceased. By pure will, O'Donnell finished high school with academic honors. He didn't wait long after graduation to get out of Quincy and begin to build a new life for himself.

Three days after graduation, O'Donnell told his parents he intended to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Because he was still 17, he needed them to sign a waiver. His father initially tried to stop the enlistment. "I went to the recruiter and told him I wanted to join. He came to sit down with my parents and me. They knew nothing about it," O'Donnell said. "My dad made him leave. Dad sat me down and told me I was not going to the service. I told him if he didn't sign for me to go in, I was leaving anyway."

A big part of the motivation to join the Marines, he said, was "to prove to myself I was not gay and become strong enough to beat the sh*t out of him (Schwellenbach) next time I saw him," O'Donnell said. "I had grown to be completely confused by his abuse of me for so long."

Fr. Aloysius J. Schwellenbach was pastor of St. John
the Baptist Catholic Church from 1970 until he was
forced out in March 1984 (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman)

O'Donnell was assigned to U.S. Marines headquarters at the Pentagon, processing travel orders for all ranks, from generals down to privates. He said the experience helped him in many ways, from reinforcing his heterosexuality after years of sexual abuse, to protecting the child in him that was still vulnerable.

"I have to protect that young child. He had been so hurt for so long," O'Donnell said. "The adult went into the Marine Corps at 17 to prove to the child that he would never have to be treated the way the child had been."

After his military service, O'Donnell was unable to secure employment in the Washington D.C. area, so he returned home to Quincy. He got married and started a family, but his inability to trust others would come back to haunt him in the coming decades by way of divorce.

Despite the abuse in his past, O'Donnell did his best to get on with life. He didn't return to St. John's until 1982, when he got married. The celebrant was Fr. Schwellenbach. "It was very difficult and awkward," he said, "almost like it wasn't real because of who celebrated the Mass." O'Donnell only saw Fr. Schwellenbach one more time, in 1984, the year the priest was driven out of Quincy.

Moving on With Life

Over the next decade, O'Donnell became a workaholic. "I always have to be busy," he said. His career work was supplemented by volunteer efforts: Jaycees, scouting, city council committees and the Catholic Cursillo movement.

O'Donnell eventually felt a call to get involved in the Church again. He and his wife became volunteers in a prison ministry program called Residents Encountering Christ (REC), a multi-day retreat conducted inside prisons in Missouri. O'Donnell was inspired to join after meeting one of the survivors of sexual abuse by Rev. Walter Weerts, former pastor of St. Brigid Catholic Church in Liberty and St. Thomas Catholic Church in Camp Point.

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Weerts was indicted by a grand jury in November 1985 for allegedly performing oral sex on three boys, ages 13 to 16. The Illinois Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) gathered evidence against Weerts that led him to plead guilty to three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault. He was sentenced to six years in prison in March 1986. (Weerts' crimes were described in Part Four of the Church Militant series False Shepherd.)

"Because of the abuse and what it did to that poor man, I just listened, cried a lot, and tried to encourage him to try to press forward," O'Donnell said. "He was so guilty about taking a monetary settlement. He said he wished he hadn't done that. Then I shared my story with him."

I instantly realized that I am being blackballed.

In 1994, O'Donnell enrolled in the Springfield diocese's lay ministry program. During class discussion one Saturday, the instructor shocked the students by relating an experience of being sexually abused by a priest. That revelation caused some spirited small-group discussions. "This guy from Decatur said he had been molested, too," O'Donnell recalled. "This seemed like an okay place to talk about this. It's your inner child that's tugging at the adult, the protector. The kid is pulling at you, saying 'C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. Do it now.' It's a real battle. I remember in my head it was a serious battle. Finally, the kid won. I couldn't keep him quiet."

Cdl. Joseph Bernardin 'forced' Bp. Ryan to
meet with O'Donnell

During a class break, O'Donnell approached the instructor and reported what Fr. Schwellenbach had done to him for years at St. John the Baptist. He said the instructor became "very emotional" and pledged to report the abuse to the diocese. O'Donnell said he does not know if that ever happened. (We reached out to the instructor, who confirmed knowing O'Donnell and teaching the class, but the individual would not disclose any details due to privacy concerns. The instructor asked to remain unidentified for this story.)

O'Donnell decided to report the abuse directly to Bp. Daniel L. Ryan. He sent several letters that went answered. A parish priest friend, Fr. John Beveridge, several times tried to get Ryan to listen to O'Donnell. Ryan eventually told the priest he would be "given an assignment he would not like if he did not back off," O'Donnell said. Months later, O'Donnell said he was approached by the diocese's vicar general, Rev. John Renken, before a class at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Springfield. "He said the bishop cannot talk to me about what happened," O'Donnell said. "He said that he is the bishop's personal lawyer and he had seen my letters and that he has advised and even forbid the bishop to discuss any part of this with me." Renken "warned me not to say a word about my personal abuse by Schwellenbach."

Through a spokesman, Fr. Beveridge declined to discuss Fr. Schwellenbach or the details of the O'Donnell case. Beveridge, who took over as pastor of St. John after Schwellenbach's abrupt departure in 1984, said he considered Schwellenbach to be old news and that discussion would just unearth a lot of hurt. Renken, who left the diocese and is now a canon law dean at a St. Paul University in Ontario, said he never heard of O'Donnell and would never have refused to help. "I have never heard of this victim, nor would I have offered this response to a victim," Renken said via e-mail. "For any victim, I would have arranged a meeting with the bishop."

The diocese of Springfield would not provide any information on Schwellenbach or answer questions about his tenure in Quincy. O'Donnell said in 2019, he wrote to the diocese to get any records related to his time in lay ministry school, but was told they had no record of him ever being a student.

Ryan told me that Bp. McNicholas knew that Fr. Schwellenbach had molested boys in the previous parish that he was assigned to in Kentucky.

In lay ministry school, O'Donnell said he learned that even bishops have superiors in the hierarchy. So he wrote a 12-page letter to Cdl. Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago and the metropolitan of the Illinois province of the Catholic Church. The letter documented Schwellenbach's sexual abuse and O'Donnell's attempts to report it to Church authorities.

"I received a letter back from Cdl. Bernardin stating he would 'make' Bishop Ryan set down with me, as he would be seeing him in person in a couple of weeks for the bi-annual meeting," O'Donnell said. (A spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Chicago, Meg Hall, said all of Bernardin's correspondence is under seal in the archdiocesan archives until 2021, 25 years after his death.)

O'Donnell points to a room in the former St. John's rectory where
he says he was sexually assaulted by Fr. Schwellenbach (Photo
by Joseph M. Hanneman)

A few weeks after the Bernardin letter, Bp. Ryan invited O'Donnell to meet with him at the St. John the Baptist rectory, the same building where he was sexually abused. O'Donnell said he was "very shaken" having to attend a meeting where some of the sexual abuse took place. Ryan started out their meeting complaining that Cdl. Bernardin "jumped all over his ass" for not taking initiative to meet with O'Donnell. For three hours O'Donnell described his abuse by Schwellenbach. The bishop seemed upset in hearing the details.

"I went into great, explicit details about two particular situations," O'Donnell said. "My goal was to unquestionably prove to Bp. Ryan that this did, in fact, happen to me. After that time, he assured me that he was convinced and proceeded to tell me that the blame is to be placed upon his predecessor, Bp. McNicholas." Ryan "told me that Bp. McNicholas knew that Fr. Schwellenbach had molested boys in the previous parish that he was assigned to in Kentucky."

According to diocesan records, Schwellenbach took a leave of absence from the Springfield diocese in 1968 and part of 1969. Health reasons were cited. No other details were made public. We contacted the dioceses of Covington, Lexington and Owensboro, and the Archdiocese of Louisville, but none had a record of Schwellenbach serving as a priest in Kentucky.

In 1988, Schwellenbach moved to Mountain Home, Arkansas, and built a 3,100-square-foot ranch home a short distance from St. Peter the Fisherman Catholic Church. The diocese of Little Rock said Schwellenbach was retired and had no role at St. Peter. However, Mountain Home newspaper archives show he presided at dozens of funerals and other Masses at St. Peter between 1988 and his death in September 2000. Schwellenbach concelebrated Mass with Bp. McDonald at St. Peter the Fisherman in July 1989. He was also the chaplain for the local Knights of Columbus council. He could not have functioned as a priest in Arkansas without the local bishop's permission.

Being raped for all of my high school years hurt. Being rejected by the Catholic Church and what was done to me was worse.

O'Donnell said in 1996, he was contacted by the bishop of Little Rock, Most Rev. Andrew J. McDonald. "He said that Bp. Ryan had told him to call me. He said that he had received some letters from concerned parishioners that Fr. Schwellenbach might be molesting some boys from a particular parish."

Dennis Lee, chancellor of the diocese of Little Rock, said the chancery did not have a personnel file on Schwellenbach and no record of complaints against him. "We do not know of any record of a phone conversation between a Robert O'Donnell and the late Bishop Andrew J. McDonald," Lee wrote in an e-mail. Bp. Emeritus McDonald retired in 2000 and died in 2014.

Schwellenbach died in September 2000. O'Donnell said not long before his death, the priest tried to contact him. "I would not talk to him," O'Donnell said.

Bp. Daniel L. Ryan

Schwellenbach's house on Pine Tree Lane in the Southern Meadows subdivision sold for $205,000 in May 2001. According to the real estate web site, the home now has an off-market value of more than $231,000. On Oct. 21, 2000, Walker's Auction Service held a public estate auction to dispose of the rest of Schwellenbach's earthly goods. The list published in the Baxter Bulletin newspaper included a pink La-Z-Boy recliner, a Syntha solo organ with bench, a three-piece marble-top coffee table set, three china hutch cabinets, a five-piece oak bedroom suite, binoculars, brass lamps, oriental vases and plates, stemware, a gas barbecue grill, a Sealy hide-a-bed sofa, a roll-away bed, several television sets, a large silver punch bowl, a "large box of silver items," a new Ariens Sierra riding mower with rear bagger, a set of Jack Nicklaus golf clubs and dozens of other houseware items.

"He always had a lot of money," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell said he looks back at his meeting with Bp. Ryan and feels disgust. "I heard and saw actual sobbing from Ryan expressing his hurt by what happened to me. What a slap in the face when less than a year later his own butt was in deep water." Starting in 1996, Bp. Ryan was accused by watchdog group Roman Catholic Faithful of being a homosexual predator who sexually harassed some of his own priests, sexually molested minors and young men who sold their bodies for sex, and covered up sexual abuse committed by other priests. Ryan left office under a cloud in October 1999. (His case is chronicled in the six-part Church Militant series False Shepherd.)

A Final Betrayal

Despite his trauma from sexual abuse, O'Donnell remained active in the Catholic Church into the early 2000s. After Bp. Ryan resigned over allegations of predatory homosexual behavior with minors and priests, O'Donnell said he sought out and met with the new bishop, George J. Lucas. He said Lucas offered to get him involved in supporting or counseling people who were sexually abused by priests of the Springfield diocese. He also said he would "personally see to it that I would be a part of the diaconate program," O'Donnell said. Neither thing happened. Lucas rejected O'Donnell's participation on the Diocesan Review Board established in 2002, O'Donnell said, and he never replied about O'Donnell becoming a deacon.

Abp. George Lucas

Not long after that, O'Donnell started speaking out about his abuse — something he believes later cost him dearly. He wrote a detailed letter to Roman Catholic Faithful, the watchdog group based in Petersburg, Ill. His letter was featured in an issue of the RCF newsletter, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. Meanwhile, he became very involved in volunteer work at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Camp Point, serving on numerous committees and leading the parish's confirmation program. Then things started to change. The pastor expressed concern that O'Donnell was over-extended and reduced his committee assignments. Before long, he was off all of the committees.

The final blow came not long after, during a confirmation Mass at which O'Donnell's son was receiving the sacrament from Bp. Lucas. O'Donnell said when he approached the bishop for Holy Communion, Lucas refused. "He didn't allow me to receive it. He would not give it to me," O'Donnell said. "I instantly realized that I am being blackballed. He knew I was finally giving up by the look on my face. He won. I knew that the only person I was hurting was myself. I knew I had done everything I could do to bring out the truth and try to stop the abuse. The fight was so much bigger than me. I had nothing left inside."

I had nothing to say. I just walked away from the Church — all of it.

O'Donnell left the building that night and left the Catholic Church. Two decades after the sexual abuse started, O'Donnell said what Bp. Lucas did was even more painful than Schwellenbach's crimes. "Being raped for all of my high school years hurt. Being rejected by the Catholic Church and what was done to me was worse. To go to my own son's Confirmation celebration, while being one of the teachers of that very class, nonetheless, he (Lucas) sat down with every single family during the meal to get to know a little about each one, except my son. To go to the Mass and being refused Holy Communion in front of everyone in the parish, then to be taken out of everything that has to do with teaching in St. Thomas, I got the picture."

After being refused Holy Communion, O'Donnell said, "I had nothing to say. I just walked away from the Church — all of it."

O'Donnell said he was refused Holy Communion by Bp.
George Lucas, an act that caused him to walk away from the
Church (Photo by Joseph M. Hanneman)

Stephen G. Brady, president of Roman Catholic Faithful, said he believes O'Donnell's story of poor treatment by Bp. Ryan and Bp. Lucas. "When Lucas came to Springfield, he reminded me that the work I did was very dangerous," said Brady, whose group ran an eight-year investigation of sexual and financial corruption under bishops Ryan and Lucas. "I took that as a threat. He also informed me that my family would never be welcomed at any parish if I did not dissolve RCF." Lucas, who is now archbishop of the archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, did not respond to messages seeking comment regarding the assertions by O'Donnell and Brady.

In 2019, O'Donnell said he again felt the call to help survivors of sexual abuse committed by priests. That January, he was a featured speaker at an RCF conference in Mundelein, Illinois, near where the U.S. bishops were holding their semiannual meeting. He said his motivation was to help survivors of sexual abuse, despite his ongoing hurt and anger at the Catholic Church.

He stood before 375 people and recounted the painful details of his years of sexual abuse. At times he was emotional, struggling to get the words out. But he did. "This is the first time I've gone into such detail," he said. "I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to do that." At several points during his talk, the details drew gasps from the audience. Once, he stopped, took a deep breath and said, "Okay, this part's hard."

Brady said O'Donnell's presentation at the conference made an impact. "Bob's talk was very good and very well received," Brady said. "There were many people that commented on it most positively."

Speaking before 375 people at a Roman Catholic Faithful
conference: "I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to do that."
(Video capture: Roman Catholic Faithful)

It has been a long road from the days of the adolescent youth who was raped, to the middle-aged man who perseveres today. Gone is the innocence of the teen who considered being a priest. Trust is still an issue, and O'Donnell struggles with resentment over how the Church treated him.

"There was a time I so wanted to be a priest," O'Donnell said. "Then the abuse started and I grew to be disgusted by them. Especially after what those in the diocese who vowed to take care of me treated me like I was crazy and rejected everything I had to say about the abuse."

Speaking at abuse-survivor events is a good outlet for healing, he said, despite the trauma. "This is the same energy and direction I wanted to help survivors within the diocese. I swear it was every bit of the pain that I endured from Schwellenbach firsthand. The cut is as deep as it was when it was happening.

"But I know that listening, praying with and just giving love to others who are trying to keep their pain down, hidden, [to] make a step forward and [have] hope they didn't have before. That is truly who I like to think I am."

Read Part One: The Wolf at 1019 Cedar Street.

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