Former Altar Boy Recounts Years of Rape, Other Sexual Abuse by His Parish Priest
© By Joseph M. Hanneman
QUINCY, Illinois — Is nothing sacred?
Fourteen-year-old Robert O’Donnell sat with his parents for Holy Mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church on the city’s north side. A freshman at Quincy Notre Dame Catholic High School, O’Donnell had often thought about becoming a priest. As a child, he respected and looked up to priests. But what happened on this day in 1975, and for several years after, demolished his admiration for the priesthood and drove him far, far from the Catholic Church.
St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Aloysius J. Schwellenbach, 55, came through the church’s side door and whispered to O’Donnell’s father, Charles. One altar boy didn’t show up for Mass and he needed Bob to fill in. “Of course,” the senior O’Donnell said, motioning for his son to get out of the pew. O’Donnell hesitantly complied, following Father Schwellenbach out the door, ostensibly toward the sacristy for vesting in a cassock and surplice. Robert O'Donnell Sr. outside the former St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.
Only that’s not where they went.
Schwellenbach hustled O’Donnell across the sidewalk to the rectory, a new ranch-style brick house at 1019 Cedar St., just east of the church. This was odd, the youth thought. What could be so important to risk not starting Mass on time? The music was already playing inside the church. Soon enough, he got his answer.
“He shut the front door and led me to a small bathroom right inside the front door,” O’Donnell recalled. “He was in his vestments. He pulled them aside and unzipped his pants. I said the church was full and waiting on him to start Mass. He said, ‘What are they going to do?’ It couldn’t start without him. He took my hand and put it in his pants and told me to fondle him.”
Two hands consecrated to the service of God were committing sacrilege — and the felonious sexual assault of a minor. But Holy Orders and sacred vows never stopped him before. Schwellenbach drank deeply from his cup of lust.
O’Donnell forced his mind to go elsewhere. Anywhere. It was a defense against the perversity before his eyes. If he tried hard enough, it was almost like he wasn’t there at all. He was practiced in the art of extreme self-distraction. “I do remember thinking, ‘Is there nothing that this man finds to be sacred?’ The same hands that he used to clean himself up were the very same hands about to hold the Body of Christ,” O’Donnell said. “I wondered just how far his sick mind would go, and how he could call himself a man of God.” Aloysius J. Schwellenbach
O’Donnell went on to serve at Mass that morning, but he could not get the disturbing images from his head. “I was in shock,” he said. “I was sick to my stomach.”
This was not the first time O’Donnell was sexually abused by Fr. Schwellenbach. Nor was it the most extreme. The boy would soon understand how far Schwellenbach would go to quench his predatory homosexual urges. It all started with the skillful manipulation of the adults in O’Donnell’s life. It advanced to patient grooming of a boy who was just beyond puberty. Then it metastasized into forcible sodomy and other deviancy. It became one teen’s hell on earth.
O’Donnell has lived with the disastrous consequences for more than 40 years. Being the plaything of a deeply disturbed Catholic priest destroyed his youth and strangled his nascent Catholic faith. It badly wounded his ability to trust — anyone. But it didn’t break him. The 58-year-old Florida logistics manager is speaking to the media for the first time about the sexual assaults, the betrayal, his unsuccessful attempts to report the abuse, and his long road to healing and hope.
The Devil Comes Out at Night
O’Donnell first came under Fr. Schwellenbach’s influence and control in 1975, during his eighth-grade year at St. John the Baptist Catholic School. He moved from across the Mississippi River in St. Joseph, Missouri, to live with his father after two post-divorce years with his mother. He was, in his own words, a “confused and defiant boy.” He got in trouble at school. He was a worry to his father, who sought help and counsel from his trusted priest. “My father asked the parish priest to take me under his wing and attempt to get me on the right path,” O’Donnell said.
It was a most fateful decision.
At school, O’Donnell was kept in from recess; required to be in the presence of the principal at all times. Twice a week, he was sent to clean the church. Father Schwellenbach usually appeared at the same time, attending to his own duties. After a couple months, Schwellenbach had his eighth-grade charge report to him instead of the principal. The youngster cleaned the church garage, mowed the lawn and did any other chores assigned by the priest. “He always made time to sit and talk,” O’Donnell said. “I didn’t think anything about it, as I knew he was trying to change my attitude for my future.” St. John's rectory looked like a modern home. Schwellenbach designed it to have separate entrances for him and other clergy.
The grooming was a gradual process. “He was getting closer and closer physically to me when I was doing chores for him. An example was him touching my leg when we would talk,” O’Donnell said. “He kept touching me in different places and started rubbing his body against mine.” Schwellenbach’s advances got bolder after a few months. One day, O’Donnell said he stood up from doing a task and Schwellenbach kissed him on the head, saying, “I really like you.”
Prior to starting high school, O’Donnell was baptized into the Catholic faith. Shortly after, Schwellenbach assigned him duties during Mass. At first, he was an usher, taking up the offertory collection. Later, he moved up to presenting the gifts of bread, wine and water. Before long, O’Donnell was an altar server. He grew to harbor an extreme discomfort with Fr. Schwellenbach. He kept busy with activities and two jobs just to avoid him. He planned to go out for the football team at Quincy Notre Dame. But Schwellenbach was a patient hunter. In July 1976, the priest asked O’Donnell’s father and stepmother if their son could spend the night at the rectory. He spoke out of concern their son would slip back into his old ways and get into trouble. They readily agreed.
“I was very nervous and worried about what would happen,” O’Donnell said. “I knew there was no way I could talk my father and stepmother out of it. I looked at it as spending the evening with one of my buddies. …Once I had told myself that this would be no different, I had come to the conclusion that it would be okay. Still, something inside me was a little worried.”
Schwellenbach prepared steak on the grill with baked potatoes. As they ate, the two chatted about nothing in particular. O’Donnell started to feel more at ease. After washing and drying the dishes, they retired to the living room and watched television. At about 10 p.m., Schwellenbach brought out a pillow and sheet. O’Donnell told him he preferred to sack out on the living room couch. It was time for sleep. Alas, it was also time for nightmares. As O’Donnell would find out countless times, the devil comes out at night. The interior of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Quincy, Illinois, c. 1980
The boy was startled the first time Fr. Schwellenbach woke him. The priest stood over him, wearing only underwear and a T-shirt. “I just wanted to make sure that you are sleeping comfortably,” the priest said, according to O’Donnell. About two hours later, Schwellenbach again woke a groggy O’Donnell and led him to his own bed. The youth didn’t think anything of it and quickly fell back asleep.
“As the night went on, I woke up a couple times as he was fondling me,” O’Donnell said. “The first time I told him to stop it. The second time I didn’t say anything. The third time I woke up, he had a hold of my hand, fondling him, moaning. I was so tired from being woken up so many times that I offered little to no resistance.”
At the breakfast table in the morning, Schwellenbach asked the youth how he slept. “Terrible. You kept waking me up,” the boy said. Schwellenbach asked him what he remembered. “The last time I woke up, you had my hand on your genitals,” O’Donnell told him. “He asked me what I thought of all that. I said, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ He then kissed me on the mouth. I was so confused about everything. We ate breakfast and didn’t say much at all.”
O’Donnell was desperate to get away. He told the priest he had to get ready for football practice, then hurriedly gathered his things and left. His mind was a whirlpool of confusion, hurt and anger. He hadn’t even kissed a girl, and now this male authority figure was using him as a sex toy. It was just too much to process. So O’Donnell went to football practice, eager to “take out my anger on others and give me confidence that I was not turned on by Father Schwellenbach’s advances.”
Over the following few weeks, he kept extra busy with athletics and other activities. It was his escape. But Fr. Schwellenbach kept calling the O’Donnell residence to check on him. One day, O’Donnell was in the kitchen talking to his stepmother when the phone rang. It was Schwellenbach.
“He was telling me how much he missed me and would like to have me come over and spend the night again. I had come up with excuses, one after the other,” O’Donnell said. “Finally, he ended the conversation and I thought, ‘Whew, I dodged that bullet.’ ” Not for long. Schwellenbach contacted O’Donnell’s father and expressed concerns about the boy’s well being. When the senior O’Donnell came home from work, he told his son of Schwellenbach’s worries and informed him he would be spending more time with the priest.
“I told my Dad that I really didn’t want to do it,” O’Donnell said. “He said that Father Al ‘is worried about you again and frankly, I am too. Just do it.’ I knew there was nothing that I could do to talk my father out of it. I told him that I would do it.”
O’Donnell found himself back at the St. John rectory, having dinner and watching television with Fr. Schwellenbach. “I was telling him that after thinking about it, I don’t ever want to do what happened last time again. He said that he was sorry I felt that way. I asked him if it bothered him, what happened. He said he had no regrets at all — and wanted to do more. I demanded that it would not happen again. Boy was I wrong. He was even more aggressive and more passionate towards me.”
It was called the Promised Land. Twenty secluded acres bounded on the west and south by County Road 148, just south of tiny Philadelphia, Missouri. The parcel, a stone’s throw southwest of the Big Branch River, has dense woods with two adjacent cottage homes on a private lake. The northernmost home has three bedrooms, a deck overlooking the lake and a fishing pier. “The place was beautiful,” O’Donnell said. Robert O'Donnell Sr. at his home, holding a photo of his younger self.
On summer nights, the only sounds out here are the humming of the crickets and the occasional crackling of a campfire. The whispering breeze through the thick canopy sounds almost like conversation between the trees. Oh, what tales they would tell — if only.
The placid beauty and peace of rural Marion County hid a festering, dirty secret. Father Schwellenbach owned the north property. He used it as his weekend lair, bringing O’Donnell and other boys here many times for recreation. His recreation. The walls of the little house hid the rapes and molestation from ears and eyes at the neighboring cottage. No, despite the sign on the private entry road, this was no promised land. It was a land of broken promises — and shattered vows. The crimes committed here were of the eternal variety — and they cried out to Heaven for vengeance.
Trips to the Promised Land happened about once a month. Schwellenbach would typically tell O’Donnell’s parents he needed help with yard care or some other project. They always agreed to have Bob go along. After all, they trusted Schwellenbach. The priest had counseled Bob’s father during an extreme crisis, and likely prevented a suicide attempt, his son said. Schwellenbach helped the senior O’Donnell obtain a Church annulment of his first marriage. Things like that cement a bond. They earn trust. But for the priest, it was all part of grooming. Schwellenbach played it like a vintage Stradivarius under the experienced bow of its master. So O’Donnell often found himself the only guest at the Promised Land, with Schwellenbach the major-domo.
The weekends were all similar. Activities included fishing or hanging out with the neighbor boys. Those were the good things. Schwellenbach prepared a hearty meal, with steaks on the grill, green beans and potatoes. “It was pretty much all day, grooming and building up his own fantasy,” O’Donnell said. “He just kind of made a day of it. It was evening that was the nightmare.”
The nightmare. Schwellenbach never discussed what he was about to do. He just did it. And “it” often involved forcible anal rape (sodomy), fellatio and other types of sexual depravity. Whatever the priest wanted, it was on the menu. O’Donnell took his mind away from it all while Schwellenbach abused him. “My body was there, but my mind was somewhere else,” he said.
One weekend, O’Donnell was determined to stand up to Schwellenbach. He told the priest he was going to report his sexual assaults. “He and I got into an argument at the camp. I threatened to tell them, to tell my dad,” O’Donnell said. “It completely caught me off guard when he said, ‘Here, call him. Who do you think he’s going to believe?’
“So I stood there for a minute, then slowly hung the phone up. That’s when I totally lost hope.” O’Donnell decided Schwellenbach was correct — there was no point in saying anything. “Then I was totally submissive.”
O’Donnell estimates Fr. Schwellenbach sodomized him on more than 100 occasions over four years. That was in addition to the forcible kissing and the groping. The abuse took place at the Missouri cottage, in the St. John rectory — and even in the confessional. O’Donnell said Schwellenbach once left the priest side of the confessional box, entered the penitent’s side and sexually assaulted him.
There were out-of-town trips to St. Louis and Dallas. For each trip, O’Donnell said, Fr. Schwellenbach was “giddy like a school girl, just talking about it.” On the drive to St. Louis, Schwellenbach wasn’t paying attention and the car drifted off the right shoulder of the road. The priest overcorrected as he wheeled back toward the highway. The light blue Buick LeSabre went out of control, slid and ended up in the ditch. The car was heavily damaged, but neither Schwellenbach nor O’Donnell was hurt. The priest told O’Donnell’s parents that the boy was driving and caused the mishap, O’Donnell said.
“He didn't slow down at all,” O’Donnell recalled. “He just whipped it to the left to get back on the interstate from the eight- to ten-inch drop-off and lost control. We spun around a couple of times and went down a ravine.”
These trips were a change of scenery, but they included the same sexual abuse. “He called it a mini-vacation,” O’Donnell said. “He even had a fill-in priest.” The field trips were just an excuse “to rape me all weekend,” he said.
O’Donnell said he is amazed at how brazen Schwellenbach was in his sexual predation, all the while playing the faithful pastor in front of parishioners — and a trusted friend to his own parents. “If others knew what he was doing, it would make them sick physically,” he said.
“He had manipulated everyone in the whole parish. Each father, mother and child. I wondered if there were other boys that he had done the same thing to in the past. Was he doing this to others while he had me doing things to him that were anything but sacred?”
It’s impossible to know how many boys Schwellenbach molested. O’Donnell said he believes there were many others in Illinois and three other states. The priest’s cover ran out in March 1984, when a group of parents learned about some of the abuse. The parents regularly got together to play cards, while their children hung out together.
“The children were in the same room playing board games,” O’Donnell said. “The parents were talking about how great Schwellenbach was. One of the boys interrupted them and said that Schwellenbach was touching him, kissing him like a boy does a girl.” One father became enraged and left to get a handgun, pledging to bring justice to Fr. Schwellenbach, O’Donnell said. Other parents called the rectory to warn the priest, and cooler heads prevailed. There was no gunplay or other revenge.
At least one of the families went to the Diocese of Springfield and lodged a complaint against Schwellenbach. It isn’t known which family, or the details of the alleged abuse. Shortly after, one of the families moved from St. John to another local Catholic parish. Others followed. The number of St. John parish families dropped 30 percent during Schwellenbach’s first decade in Quincy. There was no prosecution based on the parents’ complaint, though.
Schwellenbach slipped out of town, resigning his post on March 22, 1984 for “health reasons.” The closest thing to ramifications came in 2018, when Schwellenbach was listed on the diocese’s online register of priests who were “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. The web site does not include any details. Requests to the Diocese of Springfield for more details on the 1984 complaint have gone unanswered. Rev. Landry Genosky, OFM
Schwellenbach abruptly disappeared from St. John and Quincy altogether. The Rev. Landry Genosky, OFM, had a strange encounter with his brother priest in the St. John sacristy during the third week in March 1984. “I was going to have the Mass at St. John’s at 5:30 in the evening,” Genosky recalled, according to a friend who spoke with the priest. “Father Schwellenbach threw the keys at me and said, ‘Here, I’ve got to get out of town. You’ve got to take care of the wedding.’ I wasn’t even prepared for a wedding.”
And that was it. Schwellenbach was off to a treatment center for a few months. He moved home to his mother’s place in suburban Chicago to help care for her until her death in 1985. Then he got a new address and a new assignment — out of state.
Most Rev. Thomas J. Paprocki, the current bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, offered to meet with O’Donnell. “The incidents described in the allegations against Aloysius Schwellenbach are horrific,” Paprocki said in a written statement. “I am open to meet with those who are concerned about the diocese’s handling of their allegations, to listen to them and discuss what we could do to help bring them healing.”
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