Unhappy with your press? Give the 'out of context' talisman a try. (UPDATED)

See updates--there are four now--here.

Yesterday social media lit up with news accounts claiming Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis had told victims attorney Jeff Anderson that when he was an auxiliary bishop in St. Paul and Minneapolis, he didn't know that it was illegal for an adult to have sexual contact with a child. Here's how one of those stories began:

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson claimed to be uncertain that he knew sexual abuse of a child by a priest constituted a crime when he was auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, according to a deposition released Monday (June 9).

During the deposition taken last month, attorney Jeff Anderson asked Carlson whether 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,” Carlson replied. “I understand today it’s a crime.”

Today the Archdiocese of St. Louis defended Carlson with a long press release accusing Anderson, and by extension news accounts that cited him, of "strategically" taking Carlson’s testimony "out of context." According to the archdiocese, "in the full transcript of Archbishop Carlson’s deposition, the actual exchange between Archbishop Carlson and Plaintiff’s counsel is quite different from what is being widely reported in the media." The statement continues: "What Plaintiff’s counsel has failed to point out to the media is that Mr. Goldberg himself noted at this point in the deposition 'you’re talking about mandatory reporting?' When the Archbishop said 'I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,' he was simply referring to the fact that he did not know the year that clergy became mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse (pgs. 108-109)." In other words, Carlson was talking about mandatory-reporting laws, not laws against adults having sex with minors.

This prompted the alternative magisterium at the National Catholic Reporter to quickly publish a story that essentially repeats the archdiocese's press release. The editors even added an update at the top of the Religion News Service piece they published about this--which also parrots the archdiocese's claims. The St. Louis CBS affiliate published a similar article. So did Deacon Greg Kandra at Patheos. And the Winona Daily News.

So how did so many members of the media get this wrong? How could they so badly misread the testimony of Archbishop Carlson, and in the process besmirch his good name? Probably because they can read. Let's have a look at that "full transcript."

The archdiocese says that the "actual exchange" started with Anderson asking Carlson about mandatory-reporting laws. And that's not false. But what follows could not be clearer. Carlson is asked whether throughout his priesthood he knew that it was illegal for an adult to have sex with children, and he said he wasn't sure--but that he understood that now. Roll tape:

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?

MR. GOLDBERG: Go ahead.

So the archbishop's lawyer objected to Anderson's question, Anderson accepted the objection and explained that he would ask a different question, and Golberg acknowledged that Anderson would reformulate. Here's the revised question:

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.

Is it possible that Carlson still thought that he was being asked about mandatory reporting? Maybe. But then Anderson asks him this:

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.

And then he asks him this:

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.

Anderson repeated "crime for an adult [or priest] to have sex with a kid" four times during that exchange, three after Carlson's lawyer initially objected (defense attorneys aren't too keen on compound questions). Yet the archdiocese argues that "when the Archbishop said 'I'm not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,' he was simply referring to the fact that he did not know the year that clergy became mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse." The full transcript--posted on the archdiocese's own Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis website--makes it clear that Anderson wanted to know whether and when Carlson knew it was a crime for an adult to have sexual contact with a minor. He said he wasn't sure he knew it years ago, but that he did now. That's clear enough to anyone with eyes to see. So what's wrong with the archdiocese's?

Update: Right on cue, Bill Donohue weighs in with predicable accuracy.

Update 2: Donohue's latest flouncery, in which he erroneously claims Commonweal has "indicted" Carlson, proves once again that reading comprehension isn't his strong suit. Pretty much every word of that press release is false.

Update 3: Donohue is back with another press release--titled "Archbishop Carlson Has Been Framed" (for what he doesn't say)--proving once and for all that Carlson did know (in the past) that it's a crime for an adult to have sex with a minor. He lists several places in the transcript that Carlson says he advised (or would have advised) people (well, at least one couple--actually, he has trouble recalling) to go to the police with abuse allegations. Donohue writes: "According to attorney Jeffrey Anderson, as well as Commonweal, and other media outlets, the transcript of the exchange between Anderson and Archbishop Carlson reveals that the archbishop did not know it was a crime for an adult to have sex with a child."

That's not what I wrote. Nor did I claim that he is ignorant of such laws today. Rather, I was responding to the Archdiocese of St. Louis's attempt to reframe the portion of the testimonty in which Carlson was asked repeatedly whether and when he knew that it was illegal for adults to have sex with kids and repeatedly he answers with some varation on "I don't recall." The archdiocese now claims that Carlson was really answering a question about mandatory-reporting laws. But the transcript does not support that theory. That's quite strange. That Carlson says in other places that he advised at least one couple, and maybe some others (he can't remember), to take abuse allegations to the police, and that on one page he acknowledges that, yes, when a priest touches a child's genitals he has committed a crime, makes the testimony I cited all the more bizarre. Why would you say you coudln't recall whether or when you became aware that adults can't legally have sex with kids when you've already testified that it's a crime for a priest to touch a child's genitals? Momentary amnesia?

Obviously the archbishop was struggling to remember many features of his past dealings with this issue. According to Phil Lawler--not exactly known as a liberal critic of the bishops--Carlson "dodged other questions by saying almost 200 times that [he] couldn’t recall the details of various cases" (Donohue must not have seen this, because he has yet to issue a fatwa against Lawler). Indeed, at one point in the deposition Anderson asked Carlson about his inability to remember significant--even dramatic--details surrounding the scandal. Anderson produced part of a 1987 deposition of Bishop Loras Watters of Winona:

(By Mr. Anderson) I direct your attention to Page 55, Archbishop [Carlson], and go to Page 54. And at Line 25, the question [to Bishop Watters] is, "Other than Mr. Blahnik, your attorney, co-counsel, when did you discuss it with Father Adamson?"

Answer [Watters]: "Well, we have been in contact, oh, perhaps every two weeks. The last time was probably ten days ago."

Question [Anderson]: "Okay. I will get back and ask you about that a little later. Have you discussed it with anybody else in preparation for this deposition today, knowing that you were going to be asked questions about it?"

Answer [Watters]: "I guess Bishop Carlson, after I received his deposition. I said, 'Is that as tough as it looks like, you know?'"

Question [Anderson]: "Is it?"

Answer [Watters]: "He said, the best thing you can say is 'I don't remember.'"

Something tells me this exchange isn't one Archbishop Carlson is likely to forget.

Update 4: On Friday, Archbishop Carlson released a statement and a video in which he apologizes for the "concern and frustration" caused by "misconceptions stemming from" the deposition, and tries to "set the record straight." For his entire adult life, he explains, he's known that sexual abuse is a crime. So why did this happen?

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.

Archbishop Carlson explains: "I misunderstood a series of questions that were presented to me."

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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