Note: This commentary was first published June 13, 2014 by CatholicCulture.org.
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.
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 -- 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 is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN), the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the internet, which he founded in 1995. CWN provides daily headline news coverage for the CatholicCulture.org, where he also offers regular analysis and commentary.