Harlan B. Clapsaddle
Around the same time he was ordained in 1977, Father Harlan Clapsaddle began to sexually abuse three brothers he met at Saint James in Rockford, where he had been assigned as a deacon. The abuse lasted for three years and was enabled by Clapsaddle’s status as a priest and the close relationship he had formed with the boys’ family. The Diocese of Rockford concluded Clapsaddle “does present a risk to other minors” as early as 1996 but, out of concern for its liability and reputation, determined to remain silent about this alarming conclusion. The public wasn’t informed of Clapsaddle’s wrongdoing for another six years.
Diocesan records show it first learned Clapsaddle had sexually abused the three brothers when their mother came forward in 1993. She told the church her sons were not willing to speak to diocesan officials about the abuse—and in fact were concerned about her own safety—because Clapsaddle had threatened them he would “get even” and they would “regret it” if they were to go public concerning his actions. The diocese confronted Clapsaddle, who conceded he had once had a relationship with the family but insisted he had since separated himself from them because he found them “dysfunctional.” He provided what the diocese termed “explanations for why the mother may have made it up.” The diocese found Clapsaddle’s story “credible,” in part, officials reasoned, because other allegations would already have “surfaced” if the mother were telling the truth about what Clapsaddle had done to her sons.
Three years later, however, in December 1996, the three brothers did come forward to speak to diocesan officials about their abuse. The diocese interviewed each of them separately and determined “this is a credible case of sexual misconduct.” An internal memo authored by the vicar general describes the horrific abuse in detail and noted the brothers came forward “for their own sakes and concern for other young children who may be in danger.” The memo concludes with a finding that Clapsaddle “does present a risk to other minors.” The vicar general recommended that Clapsaddle be put on leave from his parish ministry so he could receive “in depth evaluation and treatment.”
The diocese confronted Clapsaddle with the brothers’ allegations in January 1997. He claimed to be “shocked” and denied sexually abusing them. He did admit, however, to inappropriate physical contact with the brothers—and to taking them on trips. The vicar general explained that Bishop Thomas Doran wanted Clapsaddle to “go for assessment” because it was less likely the brothers would bring “a civil claim with resulting publicity and financial exposure” if the diocese could demonstrate that it was taking action in response to their accusations. Clapsaddle agreed to do so, as well as to resign immediately as pastor of Saint Anne in Dixon.
Clapsaddle spent several months in 1997 out of state receiving “therapy” and “evaluation.” Diocesan notes suggest some officials developed a “sense” that Clapsaddle was “not cooperating with” this process. Upon his return to Rockford, the diocesan intervention team recommended that Clapsaddle not be given a parish assignment ever again based on team members’ “view” that this prohibition would best serve the “good of the Diocese.” Nevertheless, the diocese did agree to assign Clapsaddle as sacramental minister at Provena Cor Mariae, a nursing home in Rockford affiliated with a Catholic organization. And even though it had previously determined that Clapsaddle “does present a risk to other minors,” the diocese did not report Clapsaddle’s sexual abuse of the three brothers to law enforcement or reveal it publicly to the diocesan communities where Clapsaddle had previously served.
In March 2002, another survivor came forward to report a separate incident of sexual abuse by Clapsaddle. The abuse occurred at Saint Thomas More in Elgin for about three years in the mid-1980s and, the diocese concluded, was consistent with the abuse previously reported by the three brothers. The vicar general said he had no reason to doubt the truth of the allegation—and, upon confronting Clapsaddle, developed “serious doubts” about his response. A month later, the diocese’s intervention team found the allegation to be “sustained” and recommended that Clapsaddle be permanently removed from his office duties and most, but not all, priestly faculties at the Rockford nursing home. The intervention team also recommended, apparently for the first time, weekly supervision by the vicar general and on-site supervision of Clapsaddle. A spokesperson for the Rockford nursing home later said this was the first time the facility had been told of Clapsaddle’s “history”—and, therefore, had not been monitoring his “comings and goings” for the previous five years he had been stationed there.
Still, the diocese resisted telling the public about Clapsaddle’s crimes against children. There is no reason to believe it would have done so had one of the three brothers not reached out to the Rockford Register Star on his own accord in April 2002. The brother told the newspaper he was “saddened” that the diocese’s sexual abuse policy was “hailed as a national model.” “The diocese did not deal with me and my family in a compassionate manner,” he said. “Their attitude was one of forgive and forget.”
In response to inquiries from the Register Star, which had begun working on its own investigation of Clapsaddle, Bishop Doran finally confirmed publicly in May 2002 that Clapsaddle sexually abused the three brothers and the other survivor who had recently come forward. The bishop called Clapsaddle’s sexual abuse of children “an unspeakable sin and serious crime.” And while he insisted the diocese had handled these incidents “responsibly,” he conceded it had not reported the survivors’ allegations to authorities because, he claimed, it would have served no purpose (since the statute of limitations had passed) and violated the survivors’ “wishes for confidentiality.” But one of the brothers disputed the bishop’s account. “My family urged the Diocese to expose Clapsaddle to the authorities and conduct a full search for other victims,” he said. “We were never told to go to the police. We were encouraged by the Diocese to keep quiet. I am outraged and feel further victimized by the Diocese’s attempts to blame me and my family.”