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Survivor Narratives

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*