Statements by St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson about not knowing whether sexual abuse of children by priests was a crime that have ignited outrage were taken out of context, a spokesman for the archdiocese said Wednesday.
The spokesman, Gabe Jones, said the comments Carlson made in a deposition last month had been misconstrued in news reports to suggest the archbishop didn’t know it was a criminal offense for an adult to molest a child.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Jones said.
“When the archbishop said ‘I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,’ ” Jones said, “he was simply referring to the fact that he did not know the year that clergy became mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse.”
The deposition is part of a sexual abuse lawsuit in Minnesota involving the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, Minn. Carlson was responding to questions from plaintiff attorney Jeff Anderson.
The plaintiff in the case, identified only as “Doe 1,” alleges abuse in the 1970s by the Rev. Thomas Adamson at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in St. Paul Park, Minn.
The deposition shows Carlson claiming 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.
A close look at the 181-page deposition shows that Charles Goldberg, Carlson’s attorney who was present during the deposition, objected to a question about mandatory reporting just before the line of questioning that has stirred so much controversy.
“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?,” Anderson asks Carlson.
“I’m going to object to the form of that question now. You’re talking about mandatory reporting,” Goldberg says.
“Okay. I’ll — if you don’t like the question, I’ll ask another question,” Anderson says.
A few moments later, Anderson says, “Objection heard. I’ll ask another question. Okay?”
“Go ahead,” Goldberg says.
“Archbishop, you knew it was a crime for an adult to engage in sex with a kid?,” Anderson asks.
“I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not. I understand today it’s a crime,” Carlson replies.
The archdiocese says Carlson was still thinking about mandatory reporting laws when he answered the question the way he did.
Again, a few moments later, when Carlson was asked about his knowledge in 1984 about the criminality of priests engaging in sex with children, the archdiocese says Carlson answered the question as best he could given his uncertainty about when exactly clergy were required by law to report suspicion of child sexual abuse to the authorities.
Much later in the deposition, when asked about an incident of alleged sexual abuse of a minor by another priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Rev. Jerome Kern, Anderson asks Carlson:
“But you knew a priest touching the genitals of a kid to be a crime, did you not?” referring to what a 1987 church memo said about the alleged incident.
“Yes,” Carlson replied.
Mandatory reporting is an issue that concerns Carlson. He has admitted that he never personally reported any incidents of sexual abuse to the police, though he says he encouraged parents to at least once.
Beginning in 1988, according to Minnesota law, clergy were required to report any suspicions of sexual abuse to the authorities.
Still, Anderson said in an interview Wednesday, Carlson has always had an obligation to report what he knew.
“To say it’s not a crime doesn’t relieve you of an obligation to protect children,” Anderson said. “He made a conscious choice to do the wrong thing.”
Church documents show Carlson discovered in 1980 that Adamson, the priest at the center of the Minnesota lawsuit, had a history of sexual abuse.
Both as a teacher and principal at parochial schools, and as a priest in churches across southern Minnesota, Adamson claimed victims, according to the civil lawsuit.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Adamson admitted to officials at the Winona diocese that he had sexually abused children, according to the civil lawsuit.
Once he asked two boys to disrobe; another time he tried to grab a boy’s genitals at the local YMCA; still another time he touched a boy’s genitals while in a sauna or whirlpool, the civil lawsuit says.
Adamson, in turn, was repeatedly transferred and sent to treatment, the suit says. Then, in 1976, he began working at St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Paul Park, Minn., and allegedly abused the plaintiff in the case, known only as “Doe 1,” an altar boy.
In 1984 Carlson, who had heard about Adamson abusing a different child, recommended the priest be sent for treatment.
“It is obvious to me in dealing with Father Adamson at this time that he has little remorse other than the fact that we found something else out and completely minimizes the entire situation,” Carlson wrote in a church memo.
Carlson’s statements in the deposition, made public by Anderson on Monday, prompted a small protest Wednesday in front of the green-domed Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. Many of the protesters said they still believed in the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, though not in the leadership.
At one point, Wendy Casagrande, 76, stepped in front of the crowd and in a booming voice that belied her small, frail frame, yelled “Liar, liar pants on fire!”
Those gathered at the Cathedral Basilica, however, did not talk about Carlson’s relationship to Adamson specifically.
They spoke in more general terms about their continued frustration at the lack of transparency in the church and the fact that it takes depositions such as the one Carlson is now defending — and documents released as part of lawsuits such as the one involving Adamson — to gather information about their institution and the child sexual abuse scandal.
“To me that’s what my faith is about. It’s the search for truth,” said Mark Spann, 58, an elementary school principal from Washington, Mo., who spoke at the rally.
“I don’t feel like right now my church is a partner with me in that.”