Ex-priest pleads guilty to sex abuse of 2 girls

Chicago-Sun Times/May 14, 2004
By Dan Rozek

A former Catholic priest scheduled to stand trial later this month abruptly pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two teenage girls and was sentenced Thursday to eight years in prison.

But the surprise guilty pleas by 39-year-old Mark A. Campobello don't end his legal battle. Kane County prosecutors say they still want an appeals court to rule on whether the Catholic Diocese of Rockford must turn over its records on Campobello.

Church officials have balked at turning over the records and filed an appeal after a Kane County judge last year ruled that the diocese was in contempt of court for refusing to hand over the documents sought by prosecutors.

"It's an issue that needs to be decided,'' said Assistant State's Attorney Jody Gleason, who prosecuted Campobello.

As part of his plea bargain, Campobello admitted molesting a 14-year-old girl in January 1999 while she was a student at St. Peter Catholic School in Geneva. Campobello was working at Aurora Central Catholic High School at that time but lived at the St. Peter rectory and occasionally said mass there. He also admitted abusing a 16-year-old girl who attended Aurora Central between November 1999 and March 2000 while he served as assistant principal at the school. She came forward last year to report the abuse after seeing media reports of Campobello's arrest in the Geneva case.

After his arrest in 2002, he was relieved of duties at St. James Church in Belvidere by church officials.

Kane County Judge Timothy Sheldon sentenced Campobello to four years in prison on each charge of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Although the sentences total eight years, Campobello is expected to spend about four years behind bars, officials said.

Prosecutors said they agreed to the plea bargain in part so the two young women wouldn't have to testify against Campobello.

"It spares the victims from having to go into a public courtroom and testify. These experiences were very traumatizing for these girls,'' Gleason said.

"Both victims are happy with the outcome,'' she said.

The victims were in the courtroom Thursday, watching intently as he was convicted and sentenced. They left without commenting.

The plea bargain came just days before Campobello was scheduled to stand trial on multiple felony charges alleging he repeatedly fondled and abused each girl.

After Campobello's arrest, prosecutors asked the diocese to turn over Campobello's personnel file and transfer records, as well as records of any internal church investigations into the abuse reports.

The diocese objected, arguing that the records should be kept private, in part because any information gathered by church investigators amounted to a confidential confession to clergy.

Sheldon ordered the diocese to turn over such records, but church officials appealed the ruling. The Illinois 2nd District Appellate Court heard arguments earlier this year but has yet to rule. It wasn't clear Thursday whether the appeals court would issue a decision, given Campobello's guilty pleas.

Prosecutors still want the court to rule in the case, saying similar situations could crop up again if other clergy are accused of wrongdoing. "It's not moot,'' Gleason said. Diocese officials couldn't be reached for comment on the appeals case.

Campobello didn't speak during Thursday's hearing, except when asked by Sheldon what plea he wished to enter on each charge.

"Guilty,'' Campobello said each time.

Campobello, who was given until May 28 to surrender to authorities, left the courtroom without commenting on his plea or sentence. His attorneys also refused to comment.

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