Sex abuse victim learns of Pope's role
September 24th, 2010
09:32 AM ET

Sex abuse victim learns of Pope's role

Editor’s note: This story is drawn from CNN's one-hour special, “What the Pope Knew,” which aired Sept. 25 and Sept. 26, at 8pm and 11pm ET.

By Brian Rokus
CNN Special Investigations Unit

MORRISONVILLE, Ill. – Matt McCormick was in the seventh grade when Father Alvin Campbell gave him a ride home from a baseball game.  As they were driving along country roads, Campbell put his hand on McCormick’s thigh and “just left it there.”

It was the first time the priest had touched him. During the next three years, McCormick says, the abuse would go much further.

That was 25 years ago.  Just three months ago, he learned that Pope Benedict XVI played a role in keeping his abuser in the church when CNN told him about a letter signed by the pontiff – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – refusing to defrock the pedophile priest.

Walking around the 1,000-person Illinois farming town where he grew up, McCormick pointed out where he was molested: inside the church school, inside the rectory, and inside the church itself.

Father Campbell was convicted in 1985 on multiple sexual assault charges. He served half of his 14-year sentence. He was released in 1992 and died 10 years later.

Before performing his duties as an altar server, McCormick and other boys were fondled by Campbell in a room just steps away from the altar.

“He thought it would be funny if we went out with erections under our gowns,” McCormick said.

Still, like other young victims of molestation, McCormick didn’t think of the priest as a monster.

“You don’t see him as a predator – you see him as a friend,” McCormick said, standing in the same church where he was abused. “You see him as somebody who supplies you with money, bicycles and games and trips ... His actions would be so slow and so subtle that by the time you realized what’s going on, you’re caught.”

Campbell would also discuss sexual topics with McCormick in the confessional.

“He used the cloak of Christianity in his role as a priest to embed himself with children of parishioners and he would molest them,” said Fred Nessler, an attorney who has represented hundreds of church sex abuse victims, including 10 who named Campbell as their abuser. “They groom children. First, luring them with the idea that they’re going to be around a priest and their parents usually think that’s a fine idea.”

Matt McCormick, age 14, in a school photo from 8th grade.

When he was 16, McCormick tried to kill himself with a knife and with an overdose of pills. His father had to break down the door to his room to save his life.

“I felt like a victim and I felt ashamed,” McCormick said.  “So [it was] denial, denial, denial until I got to the point that I could move away and not have to deny anymore because people wouldn’t ask.”

As a teenager he also drank heavily and used marijuana.

“A lot of the times he would get us into that frame of mind where you’re not quite yourself, where you’re a little out of it and that’s when the molestations would start,” McCormick said.

McCormick, now 41, is happily married. He’s received a settlement from the Catholic Church and has been one of only a handful of Campbell’s victims to speak publicly about the abuse.

But until CNN contacted him in June, McCormick had no idea that the case of Father Campbell had gone far beyond his local parish.

The priest was convicted in 1985 on multiple charges of sexual assault and sentenced to a 14-year prison sentence.  But Campbell’s bishop, Daniel Ryan, was bothered by a disturbing fact: Despite his criminal conviction and prison sentence, Campbell was still a priest – and refused to quit.

Ryan brought the case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who today is Pope Benedict XVI. Ryan asked Benedict to forcibly remove Campbell from the priesthood.

In a personally signed letter, Ratzinger, citing Canon law, said he couldn’t defrock Campbell without Campbell’s permission – and instead suggested a local church trial, which would have taken years. It would be three more years before Bishop Ryan could persuade Campbell to request his own defrocking.

The Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, where Campbell served his prison sentence.

McCormick was speechless when he read the letter that kept his abuser an ordained priest.

“I think common sense should supersede Canon law,” McCormick said.

Video: Watch McCormick's reaction to the letter

Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the prosecutor for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, says things have changed in the church.

“Today, Canon law has a different scenario,” Scicluna said. “This thing would not happen under [today’s] Canon Law.”

After coming to terms with his own experience, McCormick now plans to start a foundation to support other survivors of sexual abuse.

“The children are the ones who will grow up to be the parishioners that fill the pews,” he said. “They’re the ones that need the protection. They’re the ones that need the safety net and they need the supervision and it’s not there.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Pope Benedict XVI • Sex abuse

soundoff (918 Responses)
  1. slacker

    Awesome blog, I am going to spend more time learning about this topic

    April 29, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  2. Jill

    I don't think that it's right to be gonig around saying how these things happen in Catholic churches. It happens everywhere just like I'm it happens in Methodist, Protestant, or even just Christain churches.

    November 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  3. F. Kay Blackstone

    FDR took office from the Republicans in the Great Depression, and he had a Democrat Congress that he retained after re-election. Yet, it took him 5 years to get the nation out of the mess. Everyone has expected Obama to bring the nation out of the mess we are in in less than a year while carrying on two wars and while the Republicans in Congress worked only to make him and his efforts look bad to the people. Wake up America!

    November 3, 2010 at 12:18 am |
  4. bewildered

    CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion. What is a "courteous discussion"? 90% of the blogs are full of hatred, insults, lies, and complete ignorance of religion. I am bewildered by CNN Belief. What is the purpose of the program? Do they do the same with other religions, lawyers, doctors, teachers, politicians, etc.? Are they beyond faults, mistakes, sins? Everyone has skeletons in the closet, therefore think twice before throwing the fist stone. I would suggest that the persons responsible for the program read all the blogs. They have let out all the misery and evil in the world. May God have mercy

    October 16, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  5. Muneef

    Well guess there should be a change that allows pasters,priests or sisters,mothers or what ever you call them serving the church to get married and not with out husband and wife since they are only humans and have human needs and keeping them singals as males and females drive them to wrong doings at these weakest moments of Humans Needs!
    In Islam marriage is considered as half of the Religion and the other half is Pilgrimage,Hajj to Mecca! Doesn't matter which comes first but a man is complete as a one full moon only if did both!
    So please have mercy on those poor things otherwise their lives are burnt for nothing since God did not say so beside that they may contribute for more gays and lesbians into your Society? 
    May God forgive me.

    October 15, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
  6. daryl

    Peter, catholics are a far cry from being apostalic. Apostolic means like the apostals were in the new testament. If catholics were apostalic they would baptize like Apostal Peter stated in Acts 2:38. They wouldn't be sprinkeling water on an unknowing infant.

    October 12, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
  7. Rafa

    I was raised by Communist atheist parents...but I admit that as I grew, I studied Catholicism and attended its churches as well. You have to understand...it's not right to compare Hitler with anything. He was a terrible person, and though there are some truly sickening perverts that have perhaps forever tainted the Catholic Church, not all within the Church are as evil as you think. For instance, here in America, I have met some truly wonderful Catholic families...I think the appeal to Catholicism over Protestantism for some is that it is so deep-rooted and traditional, having endured nearly two millennia of history in Europe, long before the Revolution. But its flaws...the abuse scandal shook me, I will confess. Evil must be punished, and it shall be. But what I don't truly understand is, why?

    Why is there so much filthy abuse in the Church? I just don't understand this anymore...I was truly shocked by what has happened here, and I do not think I will view the Church like I ever did before.

    October 10, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.