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. rationalfew

    This pope needs to go. He's not the person to lead the church into this century.

    September 25, 2010 at 8:49 am |
  2. Mike

    Someone asked what would happen if this was done by a "cult" Well from past practices the federal govt. would have stormed the place, shot a bunch of people and then burned down the church, killing even more people. No, wait a minute, they never proved any abuse in that case, did they?

    September 25, 2010 at 8:44 am |
  3. Lord Aiducan

    I was an altar boy myself, and if a priest ever tried to do that to me, I would've defended myself and immediately told someone. I never could understand why these kids would just let it continue, maybe it just has something to do with their upbringing?

    September 25, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  4. Gumby

    String the pope up along with the child molesters he empowers.

    September 25, 2010 at 8:35 am |
  5. Mamanomia

    The pope is an outdated figure head...when are people, the church included, going to get this...

    September 25, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  6. Charlotte Crist

    @ rs1201...We don't.

    September 25, 2010 at 8:14 am |
  7. Dee

    @defibman – good point.

    @brian – it's not that the percentage of priests that are pedofiles that is the problem...it's the fact that the church has had such a history of cover up.

    September 25, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  8. junglejim123

    The church became rotten and filled with corruption. Thats one of the reasons why we are going to be severely punished by God soon enough. Taking Gods name off everything and sympathising with radicals and Islamic extremists will only hasten our punishment. Its bad enough that these priests molested young boys but to do it on church property shows that they are intrinsically evil and should have been thrown out of the church. Money and power rule the Catholic Church and God is becoming more and more angry with it.

    September 25, 2010 at 8:03 am |
  9. Chris in NY

    Here are a few facts that get lost in this type of biased and bigoted reported:

    1. The priest is this story was removed from active ministry and put in jail.
    2. The Church made sure that this priest was unable to work with children again.
    3. The percentage of molesters amongst priests is far lower then amongst the general populations.
    4. The Church has taken aggressive actions to prevent future incidents of child abuse.

    September 25, 2010 at 8:02 am |
    • RoRo

      No. 3 is false, a pseudo-statistic disseminated by the Catholic Church, and doesn't take into account the wide age range of victims as well as their gender. Sounds like you don't think this is such a big problem.

      September 25, 2010 at 8:31 am |
    • Ken

      RoRo- No, #3 is right if you really look into it. Don't let your prejuice interfer with the truth. This is not to cover up the abuse. Just 1 incident is too many and should not have happended and most certainly should never happen again!

      September 25, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
    • Grace

      There are many priests who use the church as a way to acess young people. It is a way to gain trust of parents as well as children. In our parish we had four priests. two were pedifiles. What are the odds of that? One was caught and sent to another parish. the boy he molested took his own life. the other priest was in charge of the boy scouts in the parish as well as the CYO group. When I married and had children I joined a parish when we moved. The priest there was the same priest from my old parish. I was unaware he had been a pedifile. He molested my son. He is 40 and still is tortured by his experience. Nothing seems to help. I can only hope there is a support group of victims that could help one another. Most counselors and psychiatrists don't seem to have the answer. The church has much to answer for. Every day I dread the phone call that will tell me my son has ended his pain. The catholic church has not done enough to help these young men.

      September 26, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
  10. chieatfetus

    This is the reason why i don't go to church anymore: why should i go stand in front of a guy that molests children when I can just stay at home, pray in my head, and be just as heard as when i'm in church? And then you want to get married but they want $1200, an annulment for $500 that's not a guarantee you'll get it in 10-12 months in an economy like this. Screw the church-corrupt and hypocritical

    September 25, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  11. Chris

    This article is sensationalized, misleading and biased against the Pope. The Pope was unable to defrock the priest, but never said that he should not be punished. In fact, he said that he should be put on trial. Furthermore, this priest was removed from active ministry and put in jail where he could not hurt children. The article leads one to believe that the priest was allowed to continue in a position where he would be able to abuse children; this is completely misleading and merely an attempt to slander the Pope.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  12. Bill

    Never have I been more inspired to officially leave the church.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:43 am |
  13. john doe

    2 thessalonians 2:3,4. The return of Christ will not happen until the MAN OF SIN be revealed. Very shortly after the whole world learns the truth about the pope, which is shorty to take place, mankind will see the return of Jesus Christ and the end of the world as we know it.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:25 am |
  14. RoRo

    Despite all this man has been through and survived, the Catholic Church was still able to violate him. Sadly, Mr. McCormick's story is not unique.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:10 am |
  15. Judy

    The media is always going after christians what about the hoffific crimes of jews.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:04 am |
  16. Run4hilS

    I am Christian. This Pope needs to step down if he knew and did nothing to stop the abuses.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:02 am |
  17. godspeed

    So what does the pope have to say?

    September 25, 2010 at 4:38 am |
  18. Blake

    Maybe its time we reactivated the Inquisition to root out these perverts and heretics?

    September 25, 2010 at 4:21 am |
  19. Robert nichols

    And people wonder why the masses r loosing faith the church is just as crooked as politicians if there was a real god jesus or whom ever this kinda of stuff would not happen the meek hall never inherit the earth cause the powerful cover up the things that give the meek any kind of control

    September 25, 2010 at 3:30 am |
  20. sancho

    Too many wanna-be cynics here, not enough real talk.. You people aren't as clever as you assume..

    September 25, 2010 at 3:15 am |
    • CdnJim

      IYes I am.

      September 25, 2010 at 3:35 am |
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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.