Friend of the blog Larry Kurtz criticizes the Catholic Church in stern and unforgiving language. Kurtz's venom (I don't think that's an unfair word) goes a bit too far for some readers. Occasionally, even I feel the need to tell Kurtz to cool it.
But when an archbishop says he wasn't sure sex with children was a crime, and when his bosses then lie about what that archbishop said, I feel like adopting some Larry language.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, who headed the Sioux Falls diocese from 1995 to 2005, gave a deposition last month in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where Carlson worked from 1979 to 1994. Archbishop Carlson said under oath that he does not recall whether he knew sex with children was a crime, even though documents from the time suggest Carlson knew such contact was a crime.
The St. Louis Archdiocese quickly released damage control, claiming Carlson's comment was taken out of context. The Archibishop, said the Archdiocese, was saying he didn't know if it was a crime not to report adult sexual contact with a minor to the police, not that he didn't know the contact itself was a crime.
Grant Gallicho of Commonweal reviews the deposition transcript and says the St. Louis Archdiocese is wrong. Carlson was talking about not knowing sex with a child was a crime:
The archdiocese says that the "actual exchange" started with Anderson asking Carlson about mandatory-reporting laws. And that's not false. But what follows could not be clearer. Carlson is asked whether throughout his priesthood he knew that it was illegal for an adult to have sex with children, and he said he wasn't sure--but that he understood that now. Roll tape:
Q. Well, mandatory reporting laws went into effect across the nation in 1973, Archbishop.
MR. GOLDBERG: 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.
So the archbishop's lawyer objected to Anderson's question, Anderson accepted the objection and explained that he would ask a different question, and Golberg acknowledged that Anderson would reformulate. Here's the revised question:
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.
Is it possible that Carlson still thought that he was being asked about mandatory reporting? Maybe. But then Anderson asks him this:
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.
And then he asks him this:
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 [Grant Gallicho, "Unhappy with your press? Give the 'out of context' talisman a try," dotCommonweal, 2014.06.11].
Gallich reports that Archbishop Carlson issued a statement Friday saying he "misunderstood a series of questions" in the deposition. "I fully understand, and have understood for my entire adult life, as I stated in other sections of this same deposition, sexual abuse is a grave evil and a criminal offense."
So why couldn't Archbishop Carlson marshal the same moral and legal certainty under oath last month? How could a man charged with parsing great theological question misunderstand the reasonably straightforward and repeated questions recorded in the deposition transcript?
Perhaps to his credit, Carlson testified that he opposed reassigning a priest facing sexual abuse charges. Carlson says his opposition provoked Archbishop John Roach to take Carlson off that case.
I won't go as far as my friend Larry Kurtz in condemning the Catholic Church. But Archbishop Carlson's legally impaired memory and the Archdiocese's clumsy covering of his mistake doesn't inspire confidence.