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. sss-666

    @samila.. thanks for sharing your story..but we must at all costs denounce these criminals any way we can... people dont' think for a minute and see what's going on.. these pedophiles are hiding behind this religion to operate because they know they're being protected...

    September 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  2. Thinkdifferent

    Can victums of pedefiles sue the pedifile's employer? What if they don't work there any more?

    September 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
  3. Doubting Thomas

    If I recall correctly,aren't the pope's actions and decisions an extension of god speaking through him ? I'm sure I remember that correctly. Does this mean that god is a molester protector ? This is quite a conundrum for catholics.

    September 24, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
    • CD6910

      You recall incorrectly. The Pope is a man who is sinful and can err; he's not perfect. All baptized Christians have the Holy Spirit (God); is everything they do guided by God? No conundrum at all.

      September 24, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
    • BDO

      Thomas- Papal Infalibility applies to church dogma on faith and morality. The cannon law issue is an administrative issue. This issue has been corrected to allow the church to more quickly defrock abusive priests. Cardinal Ratzinger was not speaking infallibly when he said the priest in this article should be defrocked at a local level.

      September 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
    • Doubting Thomas

      @CD6910, @BDO, thanks for the replies. It is all very clear as mud now.

      I am curious about this, so I referenced Wikipedia. "Papal infallibility".

      Papal infallibility is the dogma in Roman Catholic theology that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error[1] when he solemnly declares or promulgates to the universal Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals as being contained in divine revelation, or at least being intimately connected to divine revelation. It is also taught that the Holy Spirit works in the body of the Church, as sensus fidelium, to ensure that dogmatic teachings proclaimed to be infallible will be received by all Catholics. This dogma, however, does not state either that the Pope cannot sin in his own personal life or that he is necessarily free of error, even when speaking in his official capacity, outside the specific contexts in which the dogma applies.

      What the hell does this mean ? It seems that there is an escape clause ?

      The Pope speaks in the capacity of the Holy Spirit except when he is wrong. Then it is because he is only human and can error.

      So, when he protected the Priests, he was acting as a human and not as the Pope I guess. amazing.

      September 24, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  4. Sarah

    Since you are so knowledgable. "When he got the authority in 2001 he cleaned out 4000 cases, ensuring that justice went for the victims. " How many millions of dollars did this cost the catholic church and how many of those priests were put in jail? Or are they hiding in a remote location still in the good graces of the church ?

    September 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
  5. glorybe1929

    Pray, all of the people who still attend this faux church, that God will reveal to you that it is a CHOICE. It's either GOD OR THE devil ,one or the other.

    September 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
    • glory ho!e

      what ???

      so you are saying that the pope is the devil ? since he has to represent one side or the other. we know that god would not tolerate child abuse.

      (sorry if this shows up 3 times. the auto-censors seem to be keeping me from posting)

      September 24, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @Glory Ho!e

      According to the believers, god does exist, and if that is true, then it is also true that god does tolerate child abuse else there would be none, or all abusers would be clearly identified and punished, and that is clearly not the case, at least in the rcc. Please don't tell me the abusers will be punished later by god – that doesn't carry much weight with the abused or non-believers.

      September 24, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  6. bc

    where were the parents during this time? I mean after their son came forward with what was being done to him.. Cases like this should never make it to court and the father should have done something to the man...priest or not...

    September 24, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  7. jb

    See you freekn catholics,black muslims, mormons. your all sick, demented s.o.b's and your sayn you believe in a god. your devils followers and should be rottn in hell

    September 24, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
    • CD6910

      you doing okay?

      September 24, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • Alpha 1

      Livin in them caves are gettin' to ya. Crawl out and start thinking like a human being!!!!!!!

      September 24, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  8. sss-666

    @luis, dont' you think rezinger had the power to reveal the truth to people to protect the children? instead, he used his power to protect the abuser... dont tell me that you would hurt a child to protect your own law. crap!!. realize that these are wolves dressed as sheep...

    September 24, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
  9. sss-666

    @bb.. sorry don't call this church, because it's not.. this is an organization to decieve the vulnerable ones to mess them up and rob them

    September 24, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  10. sss-666

    until people realize that this is not a church..this is an organization created by man to fool inocents... and still people follow these criminals

    September 24, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
    • Fr Stephen

      You have to realize that part of it is because of our fashion. Where else do people get to wear long flowing white robes with bright orange, green, yellow and purple ties, scarfs and schmocks ?

      I personally love the giant, tall, brightly colored hats that the Pope gets to wear. Those things are pretty cool – and hard to find on eBay.

      September 24, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • The True Savior

      Think about it.... isn't that what a church is ? they are all based upon man-made beliefs.

      September 24, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  11. BB

    Isn't this an old story? Why does the media dwell on bad mouthing the Catholic Church? Could it be because of the emotionally charged nature of the story? Don't be fooled, this is nothing more than muck raking and a cheap ratings ploy. Go to church every week and find peach through your faith and trust in God.

    September 24, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
    • Brian


      September 24, 2010 at 11:11 pm |
  12. Cover-up

    Catholics don't have a monopoly on child abuse.


    September 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  13. Mac

    hmmm P.O.P.E. Lets see
    Pedophiles Obviously Protect Eachother

    Seems quite obvious really. :p

    September 24, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
  14. Cover-up


    September 24, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  15. NoneOFus

    If i'm reading one of the above post's correctly, it's not easy to defrock a priest because he is essentially called by God to perform his mission? So what you are saying is God wants pedophiles in his church? Or are you saying God doesn't know that they were pedophiles, you really want to go down that road?

    September 24, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
    • CD6910

      Not saying that at all. How about we relate it to being a parent. Marriage is also a sacrament in the Church, a vocation, a calling. Therefore you just don't get married, nor do you just get an annulment. For marriage and holy orders you must discern what your calling is, and God then blesses that discernment. So, people get married improperly without proper discernment and their marriage fails. Priests get ordained improperly as well. But in either case you just don't say one day I'm this and the next day I'm not.

      September 24, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
    • NoneOFus

      I see where your trying to go with this but from what your saying part of the process in becoming a priest should help discern if they are pedo's. I am afraid that the men who committed these crimes wanted to be priests for the opportunities it provided. So if the church wants to fix this they need to screen priests better, before they are ever frocked. And they need to be able to remove them from thier position (relatively fast) should they "faulter".

      September 24, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
    • BDO

      @None – Let me know when you have the screening for pedophile scanner ready. I think that is a great solution.

      September 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
    • NoneOFus

      I don't think you can test for that, if you could then you enter into the whole "i can't help myself, the test said i'm a pedo!". I was trying to point out some faulty logic from an earlier statement.

      September 24, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
    • Vorpul

      Seems like they pulled the wool right over your eyes. BDO did not want to address the truth or even talk about it. He distracted and diverted – too bad it shows what BDO is up to...

      September 24, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  16. John

    The headline for this article implies that then Cardinal Ratzinger was the problem; he made the decision to allow this criminal to remain in the priesthood. That's misleading. Cardinal Ratzinger did author the letter, but the real problem was the Church rule which required certain procedural steps be taken before defrocking. And if I understand the last part of the story, that rule has since been changed. The Church should have had a procedure for getting rid of these pervert priests without years of procedural hoopla years ago, but that wasn't Ratzinger's fault.

    September 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
    • Vorpul


      Their guilt is plain to see and extremely obvious. What makes you think your little squeaking posts in a blog are going to make any difference? Are you getting paid to say these things? Are you afraid you will get caught for what you have done?

      Whatever. Why don't you stop doing what is evil and try doing what is good for once? Scared of the truth, ain't ya? shlt.

      September 24, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  17. Luis

    The church still does more good than bad.

    September 24, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
    • Luis

      AND it's not Ratzinger's fault either. His hands were tied by church law.

      September 24, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
    • Catie

      Thank you Luis. Yes, the Catholic Church is an outstanding organization. Just Catholic Relief Services alone helps millions over the world

      September 24, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
    • Vorpul

      More lies and misdirection. When I see posts like yours I want to puke, but even more than that I want to rip your guts out.
      I guess I just don't like disgusting sc-um like you guys. Who would have thought???

      September 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      So church laws are more important than children and than civil law. Is this an absolute, as in any law the church makes up is above any other law, or just to protect the pope and his pedophile buddies?

      September 25, 2010 at 1:47 am |
  18. John

    The headline for this article implies that then Cardinal Ratzinger was the problem; he made the decision to allow this criminal to remain in the priesthood. That's misleading. Cardinal Ratzinger did author the letter, but the real problem was the Church rule which required certain procedural steps be taken before defrocking. And if I understand the last part of the story, that rule has since been changed. The Church should have had a procedure for getting rid of these pervert priests without years of procedural hoopla, but that wasn't Ratzinger's fault.

    September 24, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
    • Busted

      Good point John thank you. I guess we can now all safely say that Hitler was working within the boudaries of the law and the attempted erradication of the jews was actually OK because of legal issues.

      September 24, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
    • Hitch22

      But he really hasn't proved he can step up to the plate for humanity has he? He hasn't really defended the weak has he? He is a man who's journey took him to the role of the vicar of Christ–shouldn't Catholics expect more?

      September 24, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  19. Mathius

    I agree, this is boring, old news, and the Pope has already been cleared of any wrong doing hundred times over. As it has already been made clear, he did not have the authority when he was in the CDF to defrock any priest. He also did not stop the ecclesial trial of any priest either. Because of his lack of authority, he requested that all abuse cases be brough to his office only in order to put an end to, as he puts it, "the filth in the Church." When he got the authority in 2001 he cleaned out 4000 cases, ensuring that justice went for the victims. Again, old news but CNN due to low ratings, want to rehash old news, funny how this is airing on a Sunday.
    If CNN wants news or report on something that really needs reporting, report about AP investigation on public school teachers, where the rate of abuse is higher, there is no accountability, no tracking, and in many cases, no background check. I trust clergy more than public school teachers with my kids!

    September 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
    • Hitch22


      He has been cleared? Did you not read the article? Who was he cleared by? The "Church"? I know it is a hard pill to swallow but come on already with the denial.

      September 24, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
    • Brian

      Yes you can bet that 6000 journalists, and I use the term loosely, have been trying to pin something on him and this, apparently, is that best slander they can muster.

      September 24, 2010 at 11:08 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      How many cases did he report to the civil authorities? I'm betting zero, but would be most happy to be wrong and ecstatic if your (correct) answer is 4,000+.

      September 25, 2010 at 1:44 am |
  20. Drew

    The current pope needs to step down.

    September 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
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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.