Editorial: Archbishop Carlson has some troubling memory lapses

By St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board

June 11, 2014

“And Pilate asked him, ‘Art thou the King of the Jews?’ And he answering said unto him, ‘I can’t remember.’ ”

Of course that’s not what the second verse of the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel actually says. Jesus, on trial for his life before Pontius Pilate, replies, “Thou sayest it.”

He didn’t deny it, he didn’t admit it, he certainly didn’t go all Watergate on him and say, “At this point in time, I have no present recollection of what may or may not have happened.”

Now contrast that with how St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson responded in a deposition on May 23. He was answering — more precisely, not answering — questions posed by attorney Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who represents a victim in a priest-abuse case that took place in 1984. Archbishop Carlson then was an auxiliary bishop in the St. Paul archdiocese. He held the title of chancellor to then-Archbishop John R. Roach.

Mr. Anderson asked the archbishop if at the time, he knew it was a crime for an adult to engage in sex with a child.

“I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,” Archbishop Carlson replied. “I understand today it is a crime.”

In 1984, then-Bishop Carlson was 39 years old. It defies belief that a sophisticated, well-educated man in the United States could get to be 39 years old without knowing that it’s against the law for adults to have sex with children.

As reported by Lilly Fowler at stltoday.com on Monday and in Tuesday’s Post-Dispatch, on 193 occasions during the course of the May 23 deposition, Archbishop Carlson claimed not to remember the answers to Mr. Anderson’s questions.

Minnesota Public Radio reported that during last month’s deposition, the archbishop told Mr. Anderson, “You’re asking me to tell you under oath what I did 32 or 30 years ago, and it would be impossible for me to do that with any accuracy, especially when you have documents that would spell that out.”

Mr. Anderson released several of those documents, indicating that in the mid-1980s, then-Bishop Carlson was keenly familiar with the laws involving sexual abuse of minors, including fine points like the statute of limitations. In a July 1984 memo to Archbishop Roach, then-Bishop Carlson reported having questioned a suspect priest; the priest “agreed” that he was probably facing a charge of a “first-degree criminal sexual contact.”

In a 1986 document released by Mr. Anderson, then-Bishop Loras J. Watters of Winona, Minn., recalls then-Bishop Carlson giving him a tip for answering questions during depositions: “He said the best thing you can say is, ‘I don’t remember.’ ”

Archbishop Carlson told Mr. Anderson he had no memory of using that phrase. Most likely his advice to Bishop Watters would have been to consult his lawyer, he said.

Slippery language like this normally is employed by lawyered-up mobsters, politicians or Wall Street fraudsters. It is not the sort of thing that you associate with a shepherd of the flock of Christ.

There are several possibilities here. One, Archbishop Carlson really can’t remember, in which case he should resign and seek treatment for Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.

Two, Archbishop Carlson has been coached-up to his eyeballs on the laws governing perjury. You perjure yourself in a sworn deposition if you knowingly lie. But if you say you can’t remember, and there’s no paper trail or evidence to the contrary, proving perjury is tough.

Three, because there’s money at stake, he’s deliberately misleading the court, to say nothing of his flock, unworried about the ruinous moral example that he’s setting. Not remembering a few things from 1984 is understandable. But 193?

As a policy, this editorial page does not comment on matters of religious teaching or practice, except when it touches on the public sphere. We have applauded the archbishop’s moral leadership on the subject of Medicaid expansion in Missouri and the state’s obligation to the poor. We have been less enthusiastic about his arguments against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Either way, he has utterly squandered his credibility.

In John’s account of Jesus’ trial, Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

And Pilate says, “What is truth?”

It’s a good question, your excellency.

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