2 priests left trail of abuse from Pekin to Bloomington, investigation reveals

The Journal Star [Peoria IL]

June 2, 2023

By Leslie Renken

A boy was abused by two priests when he was a freshman at Trinity High School in Bloomington in 1964. He chose to share his experiences with Illinois Attorney General’s Office investigators even though talking about it prompts him to have nightmares. 

“Every time I have to tell my story, I don’t sleep well for several nights,” said “Nathan,” a pseudonym given to him for the report. “I just feel so much shame and guilt.” 

William Harbert, who taught sex education to the freshman boys, was known for grabbing children by the groin as they walked through the halls of the school. 

“We thought it was grab-assing, but he would do it often. I remember times walking down the hallway, going to the bathroom, and he would grab you by the groin and say, ‘Gotcha!’ said Nathan. Harbert once accompanied Nathan and a few other boys to a dentist’s appointment after school. The groin-grabbing happened in the car, according to the report. 

Even after Harbert was transferred to Saint Joseph in Pekin, he managed to continue abusing Nathan and his friends. He offered to pick the boys up for a hayrack ride in Pekin, where he served the boys fruit-flavored gin. On the ride home, he accompanied the boys into a gas station bathroom, where he did more groin-grabbing, according to the investigation. He offered Nathan so much gin he blacked out. 

Nathan also described abuse he endured at the hands of a priest named M. Duane Leclercq. He jumped on the teen several times after wrestling practice, knocking him to the mat and grinding his groin into him, the report said. Leclercq also followed Nathan home a few times, where he sat down and watched TV with the family. 

With both priests, there is evidence that the Diocese of Peoria was aware of their troubling behavior, but did little to address it. Church documents reference a 1985 incident where Leclercq was called in for police questioning after a 16-year-old boy reported that the priest fondled him at his apartment. Leclercq was accompanied to the police interview by Bishop John Myers, who was then serving as a vicar general. The diocese’s reaction was to reassign Leclercq to Creve Coeur. Even though Leclercq also confessed to abusing another boy and hosting many young men in his apartment, he was not even required by his employer to get psychological counseling. 

As for Harbert, there is ample evidence that the Catholic Diocese of Peoria knew of his behavior all the way back to 1974, when Bishop Edward O’Rourke responded to a letter from a couple who said they knew the real reason why Harbert left Saint Rose in Rushville. O’Rourke thanked them for keeping quiet:

“I greatly appreciate your wisdom and tact in avoiding public comment about the personal problems of Father Harbert.”

O’Rourke’s replacement, Bishop Myers, was also aware of the priest’s past. In 1988, he responded to a letter from a victim’s mother describing abuse that occurred in the 1970s: “During the period which you mentioned, the diocese did have Father Harbert in psychotherapy. It is amazing that this kind of thing could occur, but who knows the mystery of evil in this world.”

Later that year, Myers wrote another letter to the mother of two victims: “Only recently have I become aware of specific instances of [Harbert’s] problem. I assure you that he has been receiving help for a long time and that we do monitor the situation.”  

Though Harbert was removed from the ministry in 1993, the abuse may have continued, according to the report. A 1994 letter to Harbert from the diocese’s vicar general shows that the church was still receiving reports of young boys coming and going from Harbert’s home. 

A total of 12 people have come forward to report abuse by Harbert. The earliest reported case was in 1966 in Rock Island County. Victims have also come forward from Bureau and Tazewell counties, and Florida.