Sex assaults of children are often ugly secrets that are kept hidden over decades, and one abused child might not be the only one.
Those truths were affirmed Friday by surprise revelations during the sentencing of an Orfordville man in Rock County Court.
Thomas E. Cleland Sr., who was sentenced for sexually abusing a boy over five years, had committed similar crimes on three other minors in cases going back to 1971, officials revealed in the hearing.
The first person Cleland sexually abused was in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, said Deputy District Attorney Perry Folts. Cleland, now 65, was the child’s “big brother.”
Cleland admitted the previous offenses to the probation/parole officer who wrote a pre-sentence report on Cleland’s background, Judge John Wood said.
One of the cases falls under the statute of limitations, Folts said.
Folts said the other cases “were essentially read in (to the record) to bar further prosecution upon his plea in the current case.”
Cleland, of 305 S. Richards St., Orfordville, was arrested and charged in 2016. He pleaded guilty in May to repeated sexual assault of a child. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.
The other two assaults he disclosed also were of boys he knew, Folts indicated.
“His public persona appeared to be completely normal, but what he did in secret was completely different and has caused irreparable harm to this child,” Folts said.
Cleland’s attorney, Philip Brehm, noted Cleland had no criminal record until his arrest, had been a radiology technician for 16 years, has always provided for his family, and is the father of six children and two stepchildren and has 19 grandchildren.
His wife since 1982 has been on oxygen for seven years and suffers from kidney failure, congestive heart failure and stage 4 breast cancer, Brehm said.
Cleland has been free on bail, and he has spent much of his time caring for his wife, Brehm said.
“But essentially there is no one to blame for that situation than this particular defendant,” Folts told the court. “He has created this situation. He has sexually assaulted not only this young man but (three others).”
Brehm said Cleland’s behavior was indefensible, but he takes responsibility, and his cooperation with authorities and a psychiatrist’s examination indicates he could be helped with treatment.
Brehm requested Cleland be sentenced to 15 years of probation with a year in jail, noting that Cleland’s behavior has been spotless while he has been released on bond for the past two years.
Cleland’s risk of re-offending was rated as low, Brehm said.
Wood said he doubts such ratings because the statistics used to measure risk of repeating the crime are based on reported offenses, but in the case of child sexual assault, offenses are often not reported.
The victim and his family did not appear at the hearing but sent letters to the court. The victim said he was 8 years old when the abuse started. He had a difficult time in school after telling his parents what happened, he wrote, and at one point wanted to take his own life.
The victim’s mother wrote that seven years in prison—the maximum set in the plea agreement that led to a guilty plea—is not enough but said it was the best they could get without going to trial, and she did not want her son to testify.
Cleland apologized and said he was sorry for the shame and embarrassment he caused. He choked up as he said he knows he must be held accountable and asked for leniency because of his wife’s condition.
“I owe it to her so that she may remain in her home. I promised her that I would always be there to take care of her,” he said.
Wood said Cleland’s own health is bad: He has diabetes, has suffered a minor stroke and has depression, in addition to pedophilia.
Wood said he had to send Cleland to prison to protect the public and not depreciate the significance of the crime.
The Department of Corrections recommended nine to 10 years in prison and five to six years of extended supervision.
In a plea agreement, the district attorney’s office agreed to argue for no more than seven years in prison and 15 years of extended supervision, and that’s the sentence Wood set.
Wood ordered Cleland to have no contact with the victim or any minors without approval of his probation agent, get sex offender treatment and be registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Wood said Cleland will be treated in prison. After being released, he will have an opportunity to make amends and live a productive life, “what remains of it, anyway.”
“We know that those sex offenders who end up in prison for extremely long periods of time … who then come forward and disclose the true reality of their secret lives, we know that what gets caught and prosecuted … are the tip of the iceberg,” Wood told Cleland.
“That’s what the research shows, and that’s the troubling thing about these kind of offenses, because they happen in secret, they happen behind closed doors and they happen to victims who tend not to come forward because of the shame, the embarrassment, whatever else is associated with the trauma that is being imposed upon them by an adult, and that’s what you’ve done.”