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Part 5: Mystery surrounds priest’s death days after sex assault allegations surface

Last Updated Oct 21, 2020 at 12:32 pm EDT

CAUTION: This story contains graphic content related to allegations of sexual assault and might be upsetting to some readers.

If you or someone you know are victims of sexual violence, you can contact Crisis Services Canada, a 24/7 hotline, at 1-833-456-4566 or you can find local support through the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres; The Government of Canada has also compiled a list of sexual misconduct support centres. If you are under 18 and need help, contact the Kid’s Help Phone online or at 1-800-668-6868. 

It took Peter Luci nearly 30 years to find the strength to confront the Catholic Priest he tells us raped him as a teen – and when he finally did – his alleged abuser, Father Leo Campbell, mysteriously died.

“He was surrounded by boys and I couldn’t believe it. I was just beside myself.”

A chance encounter with Fr. Campell at a friend’s wedding spurred Luci to finally open up about the trauma he says he endured as a 15-year-old, decades earlier.

“I never expected to see him that night,” says Luci. “He was surrounded by boys and I couldn’t believe it. I was just beside myself.”

“I went up to him and I said, ‘Remember me?’ and it was like in one of those movies. He took a step back, three steps and started to tremble. He did remember me. There was no doubt, it was obvious, but he denied it.”

Luci says he was overcome with guilt and anger when he saw Fr. Campbell surrounded by children. He felt that his silence about his own alleged abuse enabled a man he saw as a predator to access more potential victims.

The face-to-face encounter led Luci to finally tell his wife about the abuse he says he endured when he was a student at St. Mary’s College, a high school in Sault Ste. Marie run by an order of Catholic Priests known as the Basilians.

“It escalated to the point where he was raping me.”

“I knew it wasn’t right. But I didn’t know who to turn to or what to do,” says Luci. “It escalated to the point where he was raping me.”

“He’d ejaculate in my mouth, he’d ejaculate outside my mouth. He’d have a towel, or he’d clean it up afterwards. And it progressed.”

In the mid-2000s, Luci joined a sex abuse survivors’ support group, which led him to psychotherapist Lynne MacDonell, who has treated hundreds of men who are victims of abuse.

“It takes so much courage to come forward,” says MacDonell. “Men who come forward look back on that and they don’t see themselves as boys – they’re adult men [asking,] ‘Why did I let that happen to me?’ They’re full of shame, they’re full of remorse, they’re blaming themselves.”

As younger survivors began to join Luci’s support group, Luci told MacDonell he still felt guilty that he never came forward as a victim.

“He said he felt that if he didn’t come forward and later found out that another boy was being abused, he would be to blame,” MacDonell explains.

In early January 2008 – years after the encounter at the wedding — MacDonell brought Luci’s claims to the Basilians, whose headquarters are in Toronto. The order of priests told her they take all allegations of abuse seriously and arranged to investigate.

On January 30, a Basilian Father took Luci’s statement, noting “obviously he has suffered trauma that still affects him in a significant way.” On the same day, the priest interviewed Fr. Campbell, who at the time was 68 years old and retired from teaching.

Fr. Campbell told the investigator he didn’t remember Luci, and categorically denied that any abuse took place. The investigating priest also asked Fr. Campbell if he was attracted to young men. After hesitating he answered “yes, but more as a father-son relationship, not sexually.”

As the interview wrapped up, the Basilian investigator noted that Fr. Campbell appeared depressed and he was “concerned about how this would impact his future as a priest.”

On February 11, the Basilian investigator submitted his report to the order’s leader. In it, he stated he found Luci’s allegations to be credible and recommended that Fr. Campbell be sent for another mental health assessment. 

CityNews reached out to the Basilians multiple times, asking for an interview with one of their most senior priests, Vicar General, David Katulski. Our requests were denied. Eventually, we sent a detailed list of questions for an official response. The order declined to answer questions about specific individuals or events. Their lawyer did forward a statement.

“There has never been any doubt or misunderstanding that sexual abuse of a child is, and always has been, wrong,” the Basilians write.

The statement says historically, attraction to children wasn’t well understood, which contributed to the thinking that sex abuse “was a moral failing, and could be addressed by deeper spiritual focus and commitment.”

“Treatment providers often treated those against whom allegations of sexual abuse had been made and, believing them to be cured, cleared them to return to work.”

The mystery of Fr. Campbell’s death

Three days later, Luci received a bombshell phone call – Fr. Campbell had died.

Luci says he asked about the circumstances of Fr. Campbell’s death, but was never given details. His death was described as a “sudden passing” in a memorial in the alumni newsletter of St. Michael’s College School. Despite allegations that began to pile up early in his career, Fr. Campbell was still appointed principal of the Basilian-run private school in Toronto and later brought back as head of chaplaincy and to teach religion.

MacDonell believes that understanding how Fr. Campbell died would help Luci gain some measure of peace.

“It would have helped him so much,” she says.

The priest’s death brought Luci conflicting emotions.

“I felt responsible for his death, and that was when I started to see him coming to me, in my head when I fall asleep,” he says. “He’s not there to see what he did to me and others. He’s not there, he’s just gone. I’m here though and I have to live with what he did. That’s not fair.”

The Basilians tell CityNews that Fr. Campbell died of heart failure. In his obituary posted in the Basilian Newsletter, Fr. Campbell was remembered as a priest who “had a special ability to reach out to the disenfranchised and alienated.”

His funeral was held at Holy Rosary Church, where he had once served as associate pastor. His colleague, Fr. John Malo, gave his eulogy, and Campbell is buried in the Basilian plot at Holy Cross Cemetery in Thornhill.

In the months following his death, St. Michael’s College established a bursary, “in honour and memory of Fr. Leo Campbell, whose musical talents and contributions to the St. Michael’s community are missed.”

The Basilians also began paying for Luci’s psychotherapy.

In 2009, Luci filed a lawsuit against Fr. Campbell’s estate and the Basilians. It was settled in 2015 for $250,000, and without any admission of liability from the order of priests.

When St. Mike’s became aware of the settlement, the school took Fr. Campbell’s name off the bursary.

In a statement to CityNews, the school says to the knowledge of current administration, the Basilian Fathers didn’t tell school administration about the allegations against Fr. Campbell while he was teaching there.

Luci is adamant that, for him, coming forward was about coming to terms with what he says happened to him.

“There’s no balance left after that, everything’s thrown into chaos.”

“It destroyed all my life. All aspects. My wife. Our sex life. Everything,” he says. “Just now after all the years and after all this help, I’ve started to feel strong enough to be able to talk.”

If you or someone you know are victims of sexual violence, you can contact Crisis Services Canada, a 24/7 hotline, at 1-833-456-4566 or you can find local support through the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres; The Government of Canada has also compiled a list of sexual misconduct support centres. If you are under 18 and need help, contact the Kid’s Help Phone online or at 1-800-668-6868. 

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