The Diocese’s History of Handling Claims of Child Sex Abuse by Clerics
The diocese prides itself on being one of the first to implement policies and procedures to respond formally to incidents of clergy misconduct. In the mid-1980s, Bishop O’Neill and the diocese’s outside counsel, a Rockford lawyer named Chuck Thomas, worked together to design “the intervention team concept.” The approach was intended to respond to all accusations of wrongdoing against diocesan personnel, including but not limited to allegations of child sex abuse by clerics. Unusual for the time, the intervention team comprised not only priests but also laypeople, including Thomas himself and a mental-health professional. The diocese’s written policy required all employees who received or learned about an accusation of wrongdoing to submit to an intervention team member “an accurate and complete description of the incident.” The team member was then required to “consult with the appropriate professionals” (including psychiatrists and social workers as necessary) and commence an “appropriate investigation” depending on the severity of the alleged wrongdoing. The policy specifically provided the accused diocesan personnel may be placed on administrative leave during the course of the investigation.
In its “introduction and rationale” for the intervention team policy, the diocese explained that “[g]reat discrepancy between staff behavior and the Christian life will be perceived by the community as hypocrisy and will impact negatively both the individual staff person and the Church in general.” Therefore, the diocese continued, “[w]e must help one another to stay committed to our Mission and to live in a way which is congruent with our expressed beliefs. Checks and balances need to exist within our structures to help Diocesan staff to remain focused on their task.” But the diocese also warned of potential civil liability. “Not only are major cases of deviant behavior a traumatic experience for the instigator and the victim or victims, but the potential financial injury could be catastrophic to the institutional Church. The Diocese and individual parochial programs cannot sustain million dollar claims or judgments.”
Beyond the intervention team concept
At the same time the Diocese of Rockford began its endeavor to ferret out clergy wrongdoing, it opened its arms in 1987 to a Phoenix priest who had just been convicted of a crime relating to the sexual abuse of a 13 year old boy. Father Joseph Lessard was spared a prison sentence, thanks in part to the intercession of the Phoenix bishop, who now sought to offload the disgraced cleric on another diocese. Bishop O’Neill was familiar with Lessard’s past, yet agreed to provide refuge to him in the Diocese of Rockford. He justified his decision with chilling reasoning: “We have to take some in since we have some too.”
The original intervention team concept remained in place for almost a decade. But several developments occurred in the early 1990s that eventually caused to diocese to take a fresh look. In June 1993, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops created an ad hoc committee to study the subject of clergy sex abuse. When that committee issued its report in November 1994, Bishop Doran formed his own ad hoc committee to evaluate the diocese’s policies against the report’s recommendations. In addition, the diocese received its first acknowledged report of child sex abuse by one of its own priests in February 1993. A survivor told the diocese that Father William Joffe—fresh out of federal prison on a bank fraud conviction—had sexually abused him as a boy in the 1960s at Saint Patrick in Dixon. The diocese found good reason to be concerned about the allegation; it quickly removed Joffe from ministry and essentially banished him from its territory. But it failed to inform parishioners about the reasons for Joffe’s removal—and did little to respond to the survivor’s needs other than offering to pay for the survivor’s counseling.
The diocese’s new policies issued in September 1995—the first to apply specifically to child sex abuse—represented an opportunity to learn from other dioceses’ experiences and improve upon outcomes. There were some positive changes. The diocese’s policies made clear that “[s]exual misconduct by a priest, religious, lay employee or volunteer, with a minor [any person under the age of 18 years] violates human dignity, ministerial commitment and the mission of the Catholic Church.” The diocese also pledged to “make appropriate assistance available to those who may be affected by the alleged sexual misconduct.” And the diocese formalized the intervention team’s processes and expanded its membership to include four lay Catholics—two mental-health professionals and two parish members. Over time, these lay Catholics included notable community members like a judge, a doctor, and a retired state trooper.
The intervention team’s work was buoyed by a clear mandate to each of the diocese’s clerics, employees, and volunteers: “These personnel are expected to report promptly allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor to the Misconduct Officer unless prohibited by applicable Church law.” The diocese also established a 24-hour hotline for survivors to make allegations directly to a diocesan representative. The misconduct officer was charged with reviewing and analyzing these allegations and to “determine whether the safety of children requires the immediate withdrawal of the accused from a ministerial assignment and/or employment” and “conduct such inquiries as may be appropriate for a representative of a private organization.” Volunteers, including a former FBI agent and police chief, assisted with this last task as independent investigators. The information compiled by the misconduct officer was then presented to the intervention team, which would review it and make recommendations to the bishop about whether the accused cleric should remain in public ministry (or accused employees or volunteers should remain at their stations). The misconduct officer was also required to “comply with all civil reporting requirements related to sexual misconduct with a minor and to cooperate with official investigations.”
In addition, the 1995 policies required the diocese to designate a victim assistance minister who was charged not only with “minister[ing] to the victim, victim’s family or other persons affected” but also “identify[ing] professional and other resources and mak[ing] them available to aid in the care of a victim or other person.” The diocese itself pledged to “make appropriate assistance available to those who may be affected by the alleged sexual misconduct of a priest, religious, lay employee or volunteer with a minor.” It also committed to “develop[ing] and maintain[ing] programs for outreach to communities affected” in order to “promote healing and understanding.” In connection with this, the diocese developed a brochure for distribution in parishes and other church facilities articulating “what to do if you know of, suspect or have been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a church employee or volunteer.”
Implementing the diocese’s child sex abuse claim policies
The new 1995 policies were put to the test the following year when four survivors stepped forward to report child sex abuse allegations against two different priests. In May 1996, a survivor reported Father John Holdren had sexually abused him as a child in the mid-1970s at Saint Thomas in Crystal Lake. And in December 1996, three survivors reported Father Harlan Clapsaddle had sexually abused them as children in the late 1970s after meeting them at Saint James in Rockford. In fact, the diocese had been on notice about both priests years before these allegations came in. Holdren had been removed from active ministry in August 1994 after he was severely and perhaps inexplicably beaten during an alleged home invasion. At that time, the diocese was aware Holdren had problems with alcohol and was known to “pick up” young boys. As for Clapsaddle, the survivors’ mother had reported the abuse to the diocese back in 1993. The diocese confronted Clapsaddle, who denied the allegations and cast aspersions on the mother’s motive. The diocese concluded the allegations were not credible, in part because this was the first time anyone had accused Clapsaddle of abuse.
The diocese’s file does not reveal whether it investigated the survivor’s allegations against Holdren, who was “impeded from the exercise of sacred orders” and never returned to active ministry. What is clear, however, is the diocese failed to disclose the allegations against Holdren, not only to law enforcement officials, but also to the public as a whole (or at least to the parishes in the west Chicago suburbs where Holdren had served). The diocese did offer to pay for the survivor’s counseling. It took a similar course with the three survivors of Clapsaddle’s abuse. A senior diocesan official determined their allegations were credible, and Clapsaddle was quickly removed from active ministry; the diocese also offered to pay for counseling for the survivors and their mother. But again it failed to disclose the allegations to the public, law enforcement officials, or the parishes across northern Illinois where Clapsaddle had served. Worse, although the diocese concluded Clapsaddle “does present a risk to other minors,” it allowed him to resume priestly ministry at a nursing home in Rockford.
Several years later, the diocese learned of another priest accused of sexually abusing children—Father Mark Campobello, who, along with Clapsaddle, Holdren, and Joffe, is one of the four diocesan priests identified by the diocese as child sex abusers prior to the Attorney General’s investigation in 2018. And like those other priests, the diocese was aware of red flags surrounding Campobello long before the Kane County state’s attorney charged him with sexually assaulting a teenage girl in December 2002. The diocese’s vicar general had been informed of Campobello’s “boundary issues” with that same girl in February 1999 but decided not to refer those concerns to the intervention team. Later that year, Bishop Doran “severely warned” Campobello about “seeing” another teenage girl in “compromising circumstances”; these concerns were not referred to the intervention team either. And in February 2000, when Campobello admitted he had engaged in “some physical contact” with the second girl, the diocese yanked him from public ministry and sent him to a psychiatric facility for evaluation. On his return later that year, the diocese assigned him to a new parish without disclosing the reasons for the change.
The diocese’s 1995 polices went through several revisions over the next two decades or so. As relevant here, the processes for handling child sex abuse allegations remained broadly similar until the Attorney General’s investigation was opened in 2018. Among other changes during this time, and in keeping with the mandates of the Dallas Charter, the intervention team transitioned to a committee and was renamed the review board. It eventually was charged with placing an allegation in one of four categories at the completion of its investigation: unfounded (the allegation is false), exonerated (the allegation is true but the conduct is appropriate), not sustained (insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegation), or sustained (the allegation is supported by sufficient evidence). Likewise, the victim assistance minister became the victims assistance coordinator and, while continuing to provide support to survivors, also absorbed the intake and analysis duties previously assigned to the misconduct officer. Finally, revisions in 2016 gave a substantial role to the diocese’s general counsel, who was tasked, among other things, with determining, in conjunction with the diocesan investigator, whether to investigate an allegation of child sex abuse and, if so, the investigation’s scope.
Jefferson Street Bridge - Rockford, Illinois
The tension between the needs of survivors and protecting against liability
The diocese implemented other policies during this period. An outreach program debuted in 2003; it enumerated the pastoral assistance, counseling, and other services the diocese would make available to survivors and their families. In that same year, the diocese issued a code of pastoral conduct that, among other things, addresses appropriate contact with children and provides “[c]lergy, staff, and volunteers must not, for sexual gain or intimacy, exploit the trust placed in them by the faith community.” Finally, the diocese implemented a communications policy in 2010 that sought to improve transparency and balance the potential “harm[ ] to victims, local church communities and the mission of the Church” caused by “sensational attention in the media” against the “benefits” that “accrue from a forthright and honest presentation of the diocese’s concerted efforts” to protect children and respond to abuse allegations.
The Diocese of Rockford’s thinking on the matter illustrates the powerful, and perhaps inevitable, tension that lies at the heart of the church’s modern approach to child sex abuse allegations. As the diocese concedes, its policies and procedures were born of an understanding that “deviant behavior” by priests could expose it to “potential financial injury” that “could be catastrophic to the institutional Church.” As is true of all institutions, temporal or spiritual, the church’s assets allow it to pursue its purpose. To safeguard those assets is therefore vital to the institution’s function, and even existence. Money paid to survivors of child sex abuse is not available to maintain priests or parishes—or put to other religious or education endeavors.
When it comes to preventing future abuse, the diocese’s goals of protecting children and limiting liability are aligned. As the church’s own experience shows, no one benefits when children suffer—and the potential costs are extreme, not only in terms of the trauma inflicted on the innocent, but also in the risk of devastating legal exposure. The diocese therefore has multiple and distinct incentives to do everything in its power to prevent child sex abuse. It is, of course, impossible for any institution to eliminate entirely the possibility one of its employees will sexually abuse a child entrusted to its care. But the Diocese of Rockford, like dioceses across the nation, has made significant progress on this front since the church’s child sex abuse crisis became public decades ago.
Where the diocese’s policies and procedures fall short is in addressing past abuse—particularly in the typical circumstance seen today where the accused cleric is no longer in active ministry. Here, the diocese’s goal of limiting liability diverges from the goal of promoting justice and healing for survivors of child sex abuse. The Attorney General’s investigators were given access to files maintained by the diocese’s general counsel documenting its response to allegations of child sex abuse under the policies and procedures discussed above. A review of these files suggests the diocese’s institutional interests often eclipse those of survivors.
One of the diocese’s responses stands out as particularly egregious. A survivor reached out to the diocese to share his experience of child sex abuse. Some 50 years earlier, the survivor explained, the accused priest had invited him, then a young child, to spend a week at his parish in another town. On their first night there, the priest sexually abused the survivor. The survivor decided to return home early and did not spend a full week with the priest as planned.
The survivor initially identified the parish where the abuse occurred as being located in the wrong town. On its own that should not have raised any alarms; the parish was not located in the town where the survivor lived, and he had no apparent connection to it other than as the location of a traumatic childhood event around five decades earlier. Regardless, he got the town right on his second try. Even so, the diocese concluded this inconsistency, along with the lack of any witnesses and the fact the priest was dead, made it impossible to confirm the allegation was true.
The survivor then obtained a corroborating witness—a relative who said her daughter recalled the survivor coming home early from his out-of-town stay with the priest. But the diocese found this insufficient too. It dismissed the account because it was not based on the relative’s first-hand knowledge—yet it made no effort to contact the relative’s daughter, who did have first-hand knowledge. All told, the diocese’s approach suggests it was looking not to discover the truth, but rather for any conceivable basis to avoid finding the survivor’s allegation credible.
The diocese took a similar tack with Bob Corcoran, a survivor whose frustration with the church’s response spurred him to reach out to the Attorney General’s investigators (and who asked that his real name be used). Again, the diocese insisted on a witness who could corroborate Bob’s allegation of abuse by Father Thomas Considine—a nearly impossible task for most survivors of child sex abuse, which generally does not take place in front of other people. And again, the diocese insisted it was impossible to substantiate or investigate Bob’s allegation because the events had happened long in the past and Considine was now dead.
Worse, the diocese refused to tell Bob whether other survivors had reported abuse by Considine—even though they had, and even though the diocese’s intervention committee had substantiated one of those allegations. Unbeknownst to Bob, that survivor’s experience was remarkably similar to his own. In a courtroom, evidence is considered relevant if it has any tendency to make the existence of a fact more probable than it would otherwise be. While not determinative, the existence of a prior allegation—that is not only similar but also substantiated—is plainly relevant to Bob’s claim of abuse. Yet rather than use this information to corroborate Bob’s claim, or even just share it with him, the diocese chose instead to keep it under wraps and send Bob packing.
One possible explanation for these results is the overarching role the diocese’s general counsel plays in responding to allegations of child sex abuse. Unlike some other Illinois dioceses, the files the Diocese of Rockford produced to the Attorney General documenting child sex abuse allegations are maintained by its general counsel. The general counsel also helps determine the extent of the diocese’s investigation and serves as legal advisor to the review board. The general counsel’s primary responsibility, of course, is to protect the diocese from legal exposure. In circumstances where the best interests of the diocese are inconsistent with the best interests of a survivor of child sex abuse, the general counsel is put in a difficult and unfair position. Investigations of child sex abuse allegations should be performed independently—by someone who is not also concerned about how the results of that investigation might affect the diocese’s bottom line.
The diocese has made improvements in its processes as a result of the Attorney General’s investigation—and although it remains to be seen, these improvements should lead to better experiences for survivors who come forward today. Bob’s experience helps to illustrate one of those improvements. Before the Attorney General’s investigation, the diocese did not systematically identify the names of priests against whom it had substantiated claims of child sex abuse, so Bob didn’t know the diocese had previously confirmed Considine preyed on another child. As of November 2018, however, the diocese publishes these names on its public website for the world to see. The diocese also deserves credit for promptly updating its public list over the past four years as it learns new information about priests who ministered within its boundaries and were found to have preyed on children by their religious order or another diocese.
But one wonders why the diocese didn’t see fit to publish a list earlier. Perhaps its experience with Joffe, the first diocesan priest it removed from ministry for child sex abuse, offers some insight. In 2004, Bishop Doran determined “the interests of openness and transparency” justified a press release alerting the public to the four allegations of child sex abuse it had received against Joffe over the past 11 years. Over the next few weeks, five additional survivors came forward to report their own allegations of child sex abuse against Joffe—encouraged, no doubt, by the diocese’s press release confirming they were not alone and might be believed. And these were not spurious claims; to the contrary, the diocese found them to be credible and Joffe’s “imputability” to be “reasonably established.” This transparent approach to handling allegations against Joffe seems to have been an unmitigated success for survivors. Even so, for reasons that remain unclear, the diocese waited another 14 years to repeat the process for all substantiated priests by posting a public list on its webpage. Another illustration of the tension between the goals of limiting liability for the institution and promoting justice for survivors.
The past several years have seen substantial improvements at the Diocese of Rockford for preventing, detecting, and investigating occurrences of misconduct by clerics with children. Whether the diocese continues to make progress will depend on the commitment of its leaders and the vigilance of parishioners, parents, and others in a position to hold the church accountable.