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Father knows best: the St. Louis Review rejects ad for Vatican correspondent of The National Catholic Reporter, while accepting ads of dismissed priest charged with abuse.

When Margaret Mary Moore tried to get an advertisement about a lecture at St. Louis University in the St. Louis Archdiocese weekly, she was told there was no room at the inn.

Moore, director of the Theology and Life Institute in University City, helped bring two nationally esteemed journalists to St. Louis University's St. Francis Xavier Church on April 18. Moore tried to advertise the event in The St. Louis Review, the official weekly of the Archdiocese, and was told it was inappropriate for the paper.

"They accepted the ad at first," said Moore. "The Review ad sales representative, Jeff Aldrich, said it would cost $195. Then he called back and said the ad was run past the paper's editor and it was rejected.

"Aldrich said the editor told him that 'these two guys are antagonists of the church. We don't need to give them any publicity.' I was amazed to hear this," said Moore. "I was just absolutely amazed."

The Rev. Robert Finn, editor of The Review and a priest-in-residence at Holy Redeemer Church in Webster Groves, said it was his decision to kill the advertisement.

"It's my decision," said Finn. "I think we just preferred not to give advertisements to The National Catholic Reporter. It's such a far cry from our own approach to church teaching and interpretation that it doesn't seem consistent with our policy for us to do that."

The two journalists, who spoke at the April 18 lecture event, are Robert Blair Kaiser of Newsweek and John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent to The National Catholic Reporter. Both journalists offered their insights on the future of the Roman Catholic Church and the next papal election process.

Kaiser currently reports on the Vatican for Newsweek. He covered the Vatican during the historical church meetings of Vatican II. He wrote the best-selling memoir about the changes called, "Pope, Council and World." He is at work on another volume covering the future of the church.

Allen is a long-time Vatican correspondent who wrote a popular biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. His new book, "Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election," will be published by Doubleday in May.

Outright censorship

Moore said the two journalists are church men themselves, not "cynical journalists or skeptics off the street." Moore said their expertise ensured astute and respectful commentaries on the state of the church today.

"I'm a theologian and I don't think these two respected men are antagonists of the church at all," said Moore. "I think what we are talking about here with The Review is outright censorship. I was stunned that these two reputable, balanced, award-winning authors are judged to be inappropriate for Catholic readers.

"The lecture was not meant to be antagonistic to the church," added Moore. "It was focused on the church's future. It wasn't about the current crisis with pedophilia by priests, or anything to do with scandal."

Editor Finn said he stands by his decision to nix any advertising about the lecture event in The Review.

"Perhaps the lecture was very, very good," said Finn. "But we have a policy of rejecting anything that we think would not be helpful to our readers. So, it would be in my purview to make a decision like that on the lecture.

"We certainly have the right to determine what goes in our paper," added Finn. "We don't publish ads for political candidates. We don't run ads for X-rated movies. We don't run ads for nightclubs on the East Side- they're not interested in us anyway because we don't have the audience they want, so we're glad that we don't have to tell them we don't want their ads."

Moore said she was offended that an ad to promote dialogue within the Catholic community was talked about in the same breath as an ad for an X-rated movie.

"I thought The Review would be delighted to get our ad," said Moore. "These respected writers and The National Catholic Reporter are all part of our Catholic community. We don't have to agree with everything that they say, but the education that results from a good discussion merits appreciation, not discouragement."

"What hypocrisy!"

"I've been told that The Review takes vacation tour ads of Robert Vonnahmen, who I am told is a defrocked priest," said Moore. "I am flabbergasted that it is OK to take advertising from a discredited priest, but it's not OK to take advertising from within the Catholic community. What hypocrisy! I have zero tolerance for such duplicity."

Vonnahmen is the director of Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage, a Southern Illinois-based travel company that offers tours to international Catholic holy sites. Vonnahmen was removed by the Belleville Diocese from his parish in Elizabethtown, Ill., in 1993 after being accused of sexually abusing a minor. A spate of sexual abuse lawsuits against Vonnahmen followed throughout the 1990s.

When Finn of The Review was asked about accepting ads from Vonnahmen's travel firm, he denied any specific knowledge of ads for Shrine Tours.

"I am not sure about that," said Finn. "We take a lot of travel ads in the paper that we think will be of interest to our readers."

SJR contacted Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage offices where an employee confirmed that travel ads were scheduled to run in The Review in St. Louis in the May 3 edition.

"Father Vonnahmen is the director of our company and Father leads many of our tours himself," the receptionist at Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage told SJR. "We only advertise in Catholic publications. We are very careful about that, because we are non-profit," she noted.

Moore said the idea that ads from a discredited priest are being accepted by The Review is appalling in light of Finn's self-professed mission to protect readers. She said the descriptive that Vonnahmen's tours are "Catholic pilgrimages" is tantamount to false advertising.

"Our shepherds are supposed to protect us from the wolves, not from the truth," said Moore. "If I went on one of these tours and I found out about the background of the company, I would feel very betrayed. This is the kind of duplicity that has so many Catholics upset and disillusioned."

David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), has worked with a number of individuals who claim to have been abused by Vonnahmen. Clohessy said many of their lawsuits ran into trouble because of statute of limitation technicalities.

While Vonnahmen has been permanently removed by the Belleville Diocese as a priest, Clohessy said it is troubling that he continues to wear his Roman collar, continues to be called "Father" by his travel firm employees, and continues to lead the public to believe that his travel company is a Catholic institution.

"Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville should take further steps to disassociate his diocese from Vonnahmen's enterprises and warn Catholics of his predatory behavior," Clohessy said. "Vonnahmen certainly must hold one of the records for sex abuse lawsuits filed."

Among the lawsuits filed against Vonnahmen in the 1990s:

* Stephen McCaffrey of New Mexico, who alleged that he was sexually abused by Vonnahmen in the 1980s while he was attending Camp Ondessonk. Vonnahmen was camp director at the time.

* William Boyd of Carbondale, who alleged Vonnahmen forced him to have sex in exchange for employment with the tour company Vonnahmen heads.

* "Sue Doe," a minor who alleged that Vonnahmen forced her to have sex with him in the rectory at St. Phillip's Church in East St. Louis in the 1960s.

* William Benton of Carbondale, who alleged that Vonnahmen abused him at the age of 15 while he was attending Camp Ondessonk.

SJR attempted to reach Vicar General James Margason of the Belleville Catholic Diocese for comment on Vonnahmen's Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage tour business and regarding his current status with the church. Margason was unavailable for comment at SJR press time.

Don Corrigan is a professor in the School of Communications at Webster University and he also edits three weekly newspapers.
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Author:Corrigan, Don
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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