Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The mistaken defense of Archbishop Carlson

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 13, 2014

With his customary bravado, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League claims that “Archbishop Carlson Has Been Framed” and says that criticism of the archbishop’s testimony (including mine, presumably) can be attributed to “malice, ignorance and laziness.” Strong words. Let’s see if they hold up.

Examining the transcript of the deposition, Donohue notes several times when the archbishop spoke of sexual molestation in terms that suggested it was a crime. Donohue concludes that in light of that recorded testimony, “it is simply impossible to believe that Carlson did not know it was against the law for an adult to have sex with a minor.”

But that’s exactly the point! No reasonable person thought that the archbishop was ignorant of the law. That’s why it was so shocking that the archbishop said he was ignorant. Let’s be clear here. The scandal did not arise because Archbishop Carlson didn’t know the law. The scandal arose because, under oath, he said he didn’t know the law.

Following the line of defense taken by the St. Louis archdiocese, Donohue says that the plaintiff’s lawyer, Jeffrey Anderson, skillfully edited a video of the archbishop’s presentation to make it appear that he was answering a different question. To be honest I wouldn’t put such shenanigans beyond Anderson. But also to be honest, I still haven’t seen the video. I based my opinion on the written record of the deposition. The transcript doesn’t lie.

Is it plausible—as the archdiocese and now Donohue suggest—that Archbishop Carlson thought he was responding to a question about a law regarding mandatory reporting of abuse? Let’s look at that record. I shall omit nothing from the relevant section; I’ll just add my own observations (in italics).

We’ll pick up the testimony from the full transcript on page 108. Archbishop Carlson is speaking about how, in the past, society did not adequately understand the problem of sexual abuse. (“Mr. Goldberg” is the archbishop’s lawyer.) The archbishop says:

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: 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?

Take note: After a single reference to mandatory reporting, Anderson says that he will ask “another question.” Will he come at the same question (about mandatory reporting) from another angle, or will he take an entirely new tack? The witness (and his lawyer) should be ready for either possibility.

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.

The question was quite clear. But is it possible that the archbishop was distracted, and thought he was answering a different question? Maybe Anderson senses that possibility. So he asks the question again.

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 again.

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.

And again.

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.

And again.

Q. In 1984, you are a Bishop in the -- a 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.

Now Anderson refers back to other parts of the deposition—the parts cited by Donohue—in which the archbishop’s testimony makes it clear that he knows sexual abuse is illegal.

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.

It’s barely plausible that when he first answered the question, Archbishop Carlson was confused. But with a lawyer at his side to alert him, could he conceivably remain confused through several iterations of the question?

In that final exchange (above), Anderson is not trying to create the impression that the archbishop is ignorant of the law. Far from it; he’s pointing to the contradiction between the archbishop’s claim to be ignorant of the law and his previous testimony.

To repeat, the scandal is not that Archbishop Carlson did not know that it was illegal to molest children. The scandal is that when questioned—under oath, repeatedly—he said he did not know.

Now you might ask, “What’s the big deal? Why does it matter what the archbishop said, in answer to the umpteenth question from an annoying plaintiff’s lawyer?” Well, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, bishops were refusing to take responsibility for the priests who molested children. That abdication of responsibility caused irreparable harm to the entire Church—and even graver damage to the children who were abused. Now, by refusing to acknowledge openly what is already obvious—that he knew abuse was criminal-- Archbishop Carlson was trying to duck the question of a bishop’s responsibility yet again. For over a decade we have been hearing of lame excuses, feeble evasions, and outright lies. We, the loyal Catholic laity, should be outraged; we should demand an end to this dishonesty.

That's why this is important. That, and the fact that when he made a statement that was "simply impossible to believe," Archbishop Carlson was testifying under oath.

Bill Donohue has spent years defending the Church against her critics. His loyalty and his zest for intellectual combat are admirable. But when a prelate’s statements soar beyond the limits of credulity, it is no longer a service to the Church to defend them. The truth has higher claims.

My point—not just in my recent comment on this case, but in all the work I have done in the past decade, most notably in The Faithful Departed—is that when Church leaders deny or distort or camouflage the truth, they harm the Body of Christ, and love for the faith impels us to correct them.

”Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than that comes from evil,” our Lord told his apostles. From their successors, we should expect more—much more—than “I’m not sure if I did or didn’t.”


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 24, 2017 9:54 AM ET USA

    Perhaps B XVI is applying a little pressure on Francis to keep Cardinal Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Francis certainly needs a rock on which to stand and Divine Worship would certainly be a good one.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - May. 24, 2017 2:25 AM ET USA

    Sadly, it would be in keeping with his inability to understand "tradition" or "conservatism" (to be kind) that Cardinal Sarah would be fired. Speeches such as the one given at the 10th Anniversary of "Summorum Pontificum" probably don't sit well with our unrigid pope. So we pray that the persistent rumors die a the quick and ignoble death they deserve else much more will be lost.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Jun. 17, 2014 1:29 PM ET USA

    "The misplaced loyalty of these Catholics has compounded the bishops' errors and cost the Church even more of the little credibility it still had" This, exactly. Also, I now tend to avoid my fellow faithful Catholics now outside the Mass. I just can't deal with so much denial or anger at the media, as though the blame for all this lies anywhere but within the hierarchy.

  • Posted by: florentine - Jun. 14, 2014 10:42 AM ET USA

    Its easy to see that a person, in this case Archbishop Carlson, might know something is wrong, even despicable, and still not specifically know whether its a crime, actually against the law. In retrospect, we condemn those who "should have, could have" better protected children, but at the time, they were flying blind, in a sense. I am very grateful for Bill Donohue and all he does to seek out and protect truth. In contrast,many of the tactics lawyers use are just about skewing truth to win.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jun. 14, 2014 10:17 AM ET USA

    I am reminded of the old saw, attributable I believe to Shakespeare, about a man being either a knave or a fool; either way things don't work in the man's favor. For too many years we have seen Catholics rush to defend the indefensible. (I remember that once a large Catholic fraternity gave Card. Law a lot of money when we all knew he was in the wrong.) The misplaced loyalty of these Catholics has compounded the bishops' errors and cost the Church even more of the little credibility it still had

  • Posted by: - Jun. 14, 2014 9:04 AM ET USA

    But Carlson MUST deny knowing it was a crime, lest he be seen as concealing it or, worse, be seen as an accessory to one. If he admits to knowing it was a crime, he may have a problem. I do not know what the statute of limitations are for covering up a crime or for harboring criminals. Also, Rome should be calling Carlson to investigate. Thanks for this great analysis, Phil! (Just curious: Does Carlson know adult/child sex is a mortal sin?)

  • Posted by: littleone - Jun. 13, 2014 11:39 PM ET USA

    Thank you! Being under oath at a hearing is no excuse for any form of obfuscation from leaders of the Church, rattled or not. When one is rattled, and one has a responsibility to speak the truth, then all the more reason to listen carefully, measure one's responses and make certain one is speaking the truth! If he was rattled, why? That speaks of fear and by-rote answers. I, at least, ask for far more from leaders of the Church;the Body of Christ.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Jun. 13, 2014 10:05 PM ET USA

    Thank you,Phil!

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Jun. 13, 2014 8:17 PM ET USA

    I believe Archbishop Carlson answered honestly and his later explanation rings false, that he misunderstood the questions. Prior to 1960s, and throughout the 79s, 80s, 90s, probably, bishops sent offending priests for treatment and thought they were doing what was expected of them and believed psychologists/therapists when they were told the priest/bishop was cured and could return to parish life. I honestly believe that bishops did not believe this abuse was a crime.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jun. 13, 2014 7:19 PM ET USA

    It's easy for all of us to sit a computer, read a deposition text, and say, "See?? Look at that!" But it's a different thing entirely to sit in a chair surrounded by lawyers for nearly *four hours* and try to answer questions from a litigious attorney who is *deliberately* and *maliciously* trying to play a game of "Gotcha." Abp. Carlson was being questioned for the *fifth* time about a priest removed 30 years ago whom Carlson actually played a big role in removing! What that even reported? No!

  • Posted by: truth in love - Jun. 13, 2014 3:03 PM ET USA

    Abp. Carlson has written to the archdiocese of St. Louis: "In the deposition last month, I misunderstood a series of questions that were presented to me. I wish to clarify that situation now. 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... I support mandatory child abuse reporting laws, to which the Archdiocese strictly adheres." See also the St. Louis Review article.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 13, 2014 11:22 AM ET USA

    Having read the apt parts of the transcript, and referring to Anderson's previous work in trying to destroy the Church, I'm with Donahue on this one. Anderson didn't ask his questions haphazardly. He set up a heads he wins, tails the Abp loses scenario. Sure, the Abp could have done better, but what unfolded did not mean what Anderson claims.