From Victim to Survivor

May 07, 2020

Years of Rape by Parish Priest Surpassed
Only By Pain of Rejection by the Church

© By Joseph M. Hanneman

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.

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.’  

“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.

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.”

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.  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)

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.”

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.”

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.)  Cardinal JoeCardinal Joseph Bernardin 'forced' Bishop Ryan to meet with O'Donnell.

O’Donnell decided to report the abuse directly to Bishop 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 email. “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.

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 Joseph Cardinal 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 Cardinal 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.)  House of HorrorO'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, Bishop 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 Cardinal 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 Bishop 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, Bishop McNicholas.” Ryan “told me that Bishop McNicholas knew that Father 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.  Bishop of Little RockO'Donnell said Bishop Andrew J. McDonald told him parents in the Diocese of Little Rock had complained about the behavior of Father Schwellenbach.

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 Bishop 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. 

O’Donnell said in 1996, he was contacted by the bishop of Little Rock, Most Rev. Andrew J. McDonald. “He said that Bishop Ryan had told him to call me. He said that he had received some letters from concerned parishioners that Father 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 email. Bishop 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.

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