It was supposed to be a happy day for Archbishop Robert J. Carlson.
Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of his installation as St. Louis’ archbishop, the shepherd of the region’s Roman Catholics.
But any celebrating on the part of Carlson was done in the midst of nationwide headlines about his connection to the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church for more than a decade.
On Monday, attorney Jeff Anderson released a deposition in which Carlson said he was uncertain whether during his time as auxiliary archbishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis he knew that a priest engaging in sex with a child constituted a crime.
Over and over, for a total of 193 times throughout the deposition, Carlson said he did not remember in response to questions posed by Anderson.
The deposition, taken last month, is part of a sexual abuse lawsuit in Minnesota involving the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, Minn.
Carlson’s statements have angered many, prompting hundreds of comments on social media and news websites. The fact that he was a man of the cloth pleading ignorance has made the situation worse for some.
“You’re talking about something that’s a clear-cut moral issue,” said Mark Mullaney, president of Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Roman Catholics seeking to reform the church, especially with regard to issues concerning sex.
Judging whether a sex act on a child is criminal requires no legal background, Mullaney said, but “a moral system that you would expect from leaders of the church.”
Five years ago, Carlson was considered a breath of fresh air, a marked difference from predecessors such as former archbishops Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke. Rigali was considered distant and bureaucratic by some. Burke’s unyielding conservative stance on social issues regularly made national news.
Carlson, in contrast, was known for a more easy, informal manner and for a career-long interest in youth ministry.
Supporters have come to Carlson’s defense, arguing that the deposition simply reflects what his lawyer coached him to say. Others, however, say shifting blame to attorneys is a poor excuse.
“It’s a good strategy if you want to avoid admitting the truth,” said Jerome O’Neill, a lawyer in Burlington, Vt., with the firm Gravel & Shea, who is an expert on sexual abuse lawsuits.
“You may look foolish and stupid, but you aren’t admitting to something that could be troublesome to your employer, or in this instance the diocese that you used to be in,” said O’Neill.
Although claiming ignorance about the criminality of engaging in sex with a minor might make one lose credibility in front of a jury, it’s not enough to make someone subject to perjury, said O’Neill.
“It’s always the cowardly and safe choice of people who can’t face the truth or who are afraid to speak it,” said Anderson, the lawyer who deposed Carlson. “It’s a form of deceit. It’s deceit by omission.
“You can’t say you don’t remember when you do.”
Anderson speculated in an interview Tuesday that Carlson’s repeated amnesia was an attempt to get around Minnesota law, which in 1988 specified clergy had a legal obligation to report any suspicion of child sexual abuse to authorities.
Paul Mones, a sexual abuse attorney in Portland, Ore., said that Carlson’s statements were a byproduct of having an open and fair statute of limitations.
Last year, Minnesota lifted the statute of limitations for victims looking to sue over sexual abuse. Under the new law, anyone sexually abused at any time in the past has until 2016 to sue. After 2016, the window closes for those over the age of 24.
Still, Mones says Carlson’s testimony was unusual. “I can’t think in my own memory of anything close to this happening.”
Bill Hannegan, a well-known supporter of the Rev. Xiu Hui “Joseph” Jiang, a St. Louis priest who recently was indicted in connection with sexual abuse of a child, argued that the questions lobbed at Carlson were too vague.
“If Archbishop Carlson had been clearly asked whether he knew, back in 1984 that it was a crime for a priest, or any adult, to sexually abuse a child, I believe he would have answered yes, as he did when asked about a specific case elsewhere in the deposition,” Hannegan said.
“The actual questions he was asked did not contain the words ‘child’ or ‘abuse,’ and so might have been misconstrued as questions about Minnesota Age of Consent laws.”
Michael Bradley, a computer programmer in St. Louis who attends the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, said he stands by Carlson, though he’s not sure he understands Carlson’s answer.
“He’s my archbishop, so I’m going to support him,” Bradley said.
“I’m not going to join the lynch mob just because of one unclear answer.”
But Mullaney of Voice of the Faithful said the Roman Catholic Church will not move past the sexual abuse scandal as long as leaders refuse to take responsibility.
Victims, he said, are “looking for more than money. They are looking for justice.”
“And these bishops don’t understand that.”