St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson meeting with Pope Benedict in 2012. CNS photo/’L’Osservatore Romano

Robert Brehl: Will Church leaders confront awful past?

  • October 9, 2018

Is it possible for a Catholic bishop to not know sex with children is a crime? 

As incredible as that sounds, that’s exactly what St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson testified in 2014 during a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where, as auxiliary bishop, Carlson was in charge of investigating abuse claims in the 1980s.

The plaintiff’s law firm released a video of Carlson’s May 2014 testimony and it remains available on websites. Carlson’s flagrant claim of ignorance began trending on social media recently in the midst of the sex abuse crisis battering the Church.

A lawyer off-camera clearly states that the archbishop must have known in the 1980s that it was a crime for an adult to engage in sex with a child. Carlson’s response is cringeworthy: “I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not. I understand today it’s a crime.”

He is then asked when he discovered it was a crime for an adult — including priests — to have sex with children.

“I don’t remember,” he says. NBC reports that during the deposition, Carlson said 193 times that he did not recall any conversations related to abuse cases from the 1980s to mid-1990s. 

Last month, Pope Francis announced a Vatican conference in February to examine the child abuse horrors and coverups, and how to better protect children. More than 100 bishops from around the world are slated to attend. The question is: How many of these bishops will employ obfuscation tactics like Carlson instead of getting to the heart of the matter?

As a recent Register editorial boldly stated: “The current crisis embroiling the Church makes it clear that it is near impossible to forge a better future without fully confronting the awful past…. Rather than waiting to respond to each new civil inquiry, the Church should show leadership and fully own up to its history. Replace decades of deception with an era of truth.”

For the sake of victims, for the sake of families, for the sake of every Catholic and the Church’s very continuation, open the windows and doors to truth. Open the Vatican archives to build a path towards righteousness and reconciliation. Stop the disinformation, the lies and walls of deceit intended to protect the Church, but which is doing the exact opposite. 

As Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski recently publicly acknowledged about the crisis: “Our people still do believe in God, but they don’t believe in us.”

But how can the Church’s lay people place much trust in the leaders when bishops say the sorts of things Carlson testified and claims to forget? And, even more disheartening, despite these outlandish claims, he remains an archbishop?

Carlson has served as the archbishop of St. Louis for the last decade. Coincidently or not, his predecessor in St. Louis was Cardinal Edmund Burke, a highly vocal critic of Pope Francis and his Church reforms.

Which brings us back to the pontiff summoning the head of every Catholic bishops’ conference to Rome. How many bishops will hold views similar to Carlson’s to protect the Church at all costs?

That possibility is bothersome. Yes, there are priests who have done horrible things. Too often the abuse has caused such harm that the victim never recovers. 

But even worse are those in authority who have covered up, enabled and permitted the abuse and access to young people to continue. 

Is it possible that some of those who permitted this to continue, or covered up, didn’t fully understand the consequences of what they were doing? Perhaps, but that does not make it excusable. It’s still a crime to abet, enable, cover up, lie, perjure and fail to alert police. Ignorance is no defence.

There’s another whole dynamic or culture at work, too — some of the worst parts of clericalism. Many bishops and priests were taught, and came to believe, that a priest is sacred. Instead of protecting children and the vulnerable, bishops prioritized “saving” the vocation. Some bishops felt compelled to do anything to help the “preying priests” from getting treatment, to repenting, to finding ways to keep him in the priesthood. 

They simply couldn’t see the harm they were doing by not getting rid of these criminals. This is why the talk of clericalism is so important and why Pope Francis is bringing it to the fore. 

After witnessing this clericalism culture at work through the testimony of the St. Louis archbishop, let’s just say I’m from Missouri on whether Church leaders will truly confront the awful past any time soon. 

In other words, show me.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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