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Archbishop Carlson & Strategic Amnesia

Catholic journalist Phil Lawler is disgusted by Archbishop Robert Carlson’s cowardly, butt-covering testimony in a child abuse deposition. Carlson said, under oath, that in the 1980s, when he was serving as an auxiliary bishop in Minnesota, he wasn’t sure that adults having sex with kids was a crime. Excerpt from Lawler’s column:

Is the reputation of the Catholic Church improved by the fact that, yet again, an archbishop has been quoted as saying things that most people find impossible to believe? How could things have been worse, if you had simply told the unvarnished truth to the best of your ability, and admitted what everyone already knows?

For nearly 15 years now, we beleaguered lay Catholics have been subjected to the painful spectacle of watching our Church leaders make implausible statements, feign ignorance, deny responsibility, and fight to prevent disclosure of damaging testimony. That strategy has always failed.

Enough! The paltry defenses, the dog-ate-the-homework excuses are an embarrassment to the Church. Stop it! If you don’t know the truth, if you aren’t prepared to testify to the truth, then you aren’t fit to be a Catholic bishop. If you can’t be a credible witness, resign!

Phil’s not going to like this clip from the same deposition. In it, the lawyer reads from the 1986 deposition of a then-Bishop Watters, who testified that Bishop Carlson had advised him in advance of the deposition on a clerical child sex abuse case that “the best thing you can say is ‘I don’t remember.'” Carlson, now an archbishop, said he doesn’t remember if he ever said that, but he doubts he did:

UPDATE: The Archdiocese of St. Louis has issued a statement accusing plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Anderson of misrepresenting the archbishop’s testimony from his May 23 deposition. From the statement:

During a press conference held on June 9, 2014, Plaintiff’s lawyer strategically took Archbishop Carlson’s response to a question out of context and suggested that the Archbishop did not know that it was a criminal offense for an adult to molest a child.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Contrary to what is being reported, Archbishop Carlson is and has been a leader in the Church when it comes to recognizing and managing matters of sexual abuse involving the clergy. As far back as 1980, then-Father Carlson wrote “This behavior cannot be tolerated” in a memo referencing a priest’s abusive actions (Exhibit 301 of this case).

In the deposition video, which was released by Plaintiff’s counsel, the dialogue between Plaintiff’s counsel and Archbishop Carlson focused on Archbishop Carlson’s knowledge of Minnesota child abuse reporting statutes and when clergy became mandatory reporters.  In the full transcript of Archbishop Carlson’s deposition, the actual exchange between Archbishop Carlson and Plaintiff’s counsel is quite different from what is being widely reported in the media.  Plaintiff’s counsel began his line of questioning as follows:

Q.  Well, mandatory reporting laws went into effect across the nation in 1973, Archbishop.

Charles Goldberg, attorney representing Archbishop Carlson at this deposition, explained that while current Minnesota law makes it a crime for clergy persons not to report suspected child abuse, that statute did not become effective until 1988.  What Plaintiff’s counsel has failed to point out to the media is that Mr. Goldberg himself noted at this point in the deposition “you’re talking about mandatory reporting?” (emphasis added). When the Archbishop said “I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,” he was simply referring to the fact that he did not know the year that clergy became mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse (pgs. 108-109).

I went to check the written transcript of the deposition to see if this was correct. If you have the time, it’s worth reading the entire thing. The archbishop is incredibly evasive. The only thing he claims to remember are things that are written down, and therefore impossible to deny. It’s easy to imagine that a man can’t remember all the details of things that happened 30 years ago, but Carlson remembers nothing. At a certain point, you begin to suspect that this is a strategy; after all, a bishop once testified that Carlson told him that the best thing to say in depositions is “I don’t remember.”

Anyway, the key portion of the testimony, relevant to the archdiocese’s complaint, is found on pages 108-110. Here it is. The conversation between Carlson and attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who is deposing him, begins at a point in which Carlson has said that the archdiocese relied on the advice of therapists, which turned out to have been a bad move:

Q [ANDERSON]: … Do you think that the therapist, upon which you relied, either at the Service of Paracletes, Ken Pierre, Gendron or others that appear in this record, bear as much or more responsibility than the Archdiocesan officials who made the choices they did?

A [CARLSON] : I think if you go back in history, I think the whole culture did not know what they were dealing with. I think therapists didn’t. I don’t think we fully understood. I don’t think public school administrators understood it. I don’t think we realized it was the serious problem it is.
Q. Well, mandatory reporting laws went into effect across the nation in 1973, Archbishop.

MR. GOLDBERG [archbishop’s lawyer] : I’m going to object to the form of that question.

MR. ANDERSON: Let me finish the question.
MR. GOLDBERG: Go ahead. I’m sorry.

Q. (By Mr. Anderson) And you knew at all times, while a priest, having been ordained in 1970, it was a  crime for an adult to engage in sex with a kid. You knew that, right?

MR. GOLDBERG: I’m going to object to the form of that question now. You’re talking about mandatory reporting.

MR. ANDERSON: Okay. I’ll — if you don’t like the question, I’ll ask another question.

MR. GOLDBERG: Well, you’ve asked a conjunctive question. One doesn’t —

MR. ANDERSON: Objection heard. I’ll ask another question. Okay?

MR. GOLDBERG: Go ahead.

Q. (By Mr. Anderson) Archbishop, you knew it was a crime for an adult to engage in sex with a kid?

A. I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not. I understand today it’s a crime.

Q. When did you first discern that it was a crime for an adult to engage in sex with a kid?

A. I don’t remember.

Q. When did you first discern that it was a crime for a priest to engage in sex with a kid who he had under his control?

A. I don’t remember that either.

Q. Do you have any doubt in your mind that you knew that in the ’70s?

A. I don’t remember if I did or didn’t.

Q. In 1984, you are a Bishop in the — an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis. You knew it was a crime then, right?
A. I’m not sure if I did or didn’t.

Q. Well, you’re talking about criminal sexual conduct in 1980, and you’re talking about it again in 1984, so you knew that to be correct, right?

A. What I said, I said, and if I — if I wrote it, I said it.

Seems pretty clear to me that the actual transcript does not back up the Archdiocese of St. Louis’s version of events. The questioning seems straightforward to me.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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