A former bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis testified in a court deposition that he did not know whether it was illegal for priests to have sex with children during his tenure as a point person on clergy abuse from the 1980s to mid 1990s.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson said he did not report to police the claims of child sex abuse that crossed his desk, even when the perpetrator admitted them.
Carlson’s deposition was released Monday as part of a lawsuit filed by an alleged victim of clergy sex abuse. In response to questions about how he handled the abuse cases, Carlson responded 193 times that he did not recall.
Carlson, 69, had been a point person behind the chancery’s investigation of Thomas Adamson, a former priest accused of more than a dozen cases of child sex abuse who is the subject of the lawsuit. However, when asked about his actions involving Adamson — a high-profile case even back in the 1980s — Carlson said he didn’t recall.
“I don’t remember with any accuracy what I did or didn’t do, but there are memos that would explain that,” said Carlson.
The Carlson deposition is the latest testimony of a high-ranking church official to be made public, following former Archbishop Harry Flynn and current Archbishop John Nienstedt and others. The depositions come in response to a lawsuit filed in 2013 on behalf of a man who claimed Adamson abused him in the 1970s at his St. Paul Park church.
The lawsuit contends that church officials in the Twin Cities and Winona — where Adamson previously worked — put children at risk by keeping him in the ministry and failing to notify church members of his past sex abuse.
All three church leaders — Carlson, Flynn and Nienstedt — said they could not recall the names of abusers on their watch and did not recall fundamental information about their cases.
Carlson served on the personnel board of the archdiocese from about 1973 through at least 1977, according to records obtained by Anderson. He also served as chancellor and then auxiliary bishop from 1984 to 1994.
He was a key decisionmaker as the first clergy abuse cases were unfolding in the Twin Cities, setting the stage for the archdiocese’s handling of cases for decades to come, said the plaintiff’s attorney, Jeff Anderson.
Aware of the law?
Although Carlson testified he did not know whether it was a crime for a priest to sexually abuse a child, his correspondence showed some knowledge of the law.
A Carlson memo to former Archbishop John Roach in June 1984 described information from a vocational counselor at the St. Cloud Reformatory. The counselor reported that an inmate serving time for rape had been abused by Adamson from age 14 to 16. Adamson admitted he abused the boy.
“The statute of limitations does not run out for 2 1/2 years,” Carlson wrote to Roach. “The mother and father are considering reporting this to police.”
A month later, Carlson wrote to Roach: “Father Adamson agreed that it probably would be first-degree criminal sexual contact.”
Adamson was later transferred to another parish.
In another 1984 memo to Roach, Carlson describes his meeting with the Rev. Robert Kapoun, the so-called Polka Padre. A boy had reported that Kapoun had been inviting him to his house for haircuts that involved Kapoun stripping naked and the boy wearing just underwear. Afterward, they would shower together and Kapoun would masturbate.
“The family insists that Father Kapoun move,” Carlson wrote. “If this does not happen, they will go to the county sheriff.”
Kapoun remained in active ministry until 1996.
Carlson has previously said that he had investigated the Adamson case and had disagreed with then-Archbishop Roach’s decision to keep Adamson working in churches because of his sexual misconduct. He was removed from the case because of that disagreement, he has said.
Nonetheless, Carlson said in the new deposition that he didn’t remember basic information about the Adamson case. When asked what the specific accusations were, Carlson couldn’t recall.
“I don’t remember,” he said, “but I’m sure they were of a sexual nature.”
When asked to elaborate on Adamson’s “pattern” of behavior, which he referred to in a 1980 memo, Carlson responded: “I don’t remember why I used that word [pattern], but I have no reason to doubt that if I used it, there was something.”
When asked the name of any other priest who had reported abusing children, Carlson responded: “The reports on people [abusers] could come to many different people, and I don’t remember which ones were reported to me.”
In response to Carlson’s frequent replies of “I don’t remember,” Anderson produced a 1987 deposition from now-deceased Winona Bishop Loras Watters, describing a conversation with Carlson about an upcoming court deposition.
“He [Carlson] said, the best thing you can say is, ‘I don’t remember,’ ” Watters testified.
Anderson then asked: “Is that what you told Bishop Watters to do?”
“I have no knowledge of the discussion,” replied Carlson.
Carlson said the reason he had so few answers about Adamson was that “accuracy is very important to me.”
Bob Schwiderski, president of the Minnesota Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP), said the archdiocese could be a different place today if Carlson and others had forged a strategy of openness and healing when the clergy abuse scandal first erupted.
“He had a chance to have this archdiocese turn out so much better,” said Schwiderski. “Instead it’s been dodge-run-deny.”