The Public Arena of a Courtroom Deposition

RNS has had a piece or two on Archbishop Robert Carlson’s deposition. Last month he gave testimony in court. Monday this week it was released. I read some pages into the conversation, then stopped. The archbishop finds himself negatively newsworthy because of variations on this theme:

I don’t remember.

The release of this legal testimony coincides with the man’s fifth anniversary of his promotion to his fourth diocese, third as a bishop.

A lot of things strike me about these events.

First, it’s not surprising that there is new furor over the sex abuse cover-up scandal. And let’s be clear that the sensitive spot for the Catholic laity is not that priests abuse children. It’s that bishops have allied themselves with moral criminals instead of victims. And even today, it’s not clear how widespread that alliance has been. But it seems likely that the percentage of bishops shielding predators was higher than the percentage of clergy who abused. Today? We’re not sure. Questions hover around many active bishops, even post-Charter.

Two, the conversation recorded is a legal conversation, not a moral treatise. Bishops are advised by lawyers. They are not free to tell the truth. By that, I mean another human system is at work when a discussion happens in a courtroom under oath. The object is not to ferret out the truth, but to determine what truth can be proved. In this system, Archbishop Carlson is not obliged to hand his legal adversaries a gift-wrapped box with a bow.

Next, it is not totally fair to transpose a person’s remarks in court and attach to them the moral gravity of, say, a confession. A wavering penitent might be queried by a confessor. (I’m not advocating the practice–I’m just saying that I’ve heard complaints about it.) A priest might ask, “How many times did you lie? When did you do it?” The penitent might demur. To be fair, the penitent is generally permitted to bring documents into the Rite of Penance. The archbishop seems to have had nothing.

Fourth, I have a hard time criticizing attorney Jeff Anderson to any great extent. In the legal sphere, he works as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse. He has a job to do, and he does it. He gets paid handsomely for it. More than me or most any bishop. But this is a part of the value society places on justice.

With the intermixing of the systems of law and church, there seems to be a confusion about things. The bishops themselves don’t seem to recognize this. Their public depositions damage credibility, personally and collectively. Catholics lose faith in bishops. That may be unfair to pin on a man advised by lawyers who is protecting his former diocese’s assets, reputation, or whatever.

At the end of it all, I don’t know what to conclude. These days, I’m disinclined to jump on any bandwagon. Having personal ministry with a few victims and survivors and no friendships with bishops, I have little natural sympathy for prelates.

It does seem that bishops as a whole could be putting their heads together at the next USCCB meeting and figuring out how to overcome this observed disconnect between movements in the arena of secular law and the moral law handed to us by God.

And that doesn’t even touch the question of knowing if adult-child sex is a crime and offering a cagey defense for it in the public sphere. The archbishop was in legal-land, but he still fumbled the question.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in bishops, Church News, Commentary, sex abuse and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Public Arena of a Courtroom Deposition

  1. John McGrath says:

    Well, if the bishops are pushing martyrdom then they would do what the martyrs did: not compromise moral truth – that is, truth – for legally allowed lying. If the martyrs had lied they too, in many cases, would have been spared. The bishops do have the option of answering to a higher standard. Somehow this concept is not in them.

  2. Jenny2 says:

    Maybe Carlson didn’t know at the time whether adult-child sex or sexual contact was a crime in the legal sense – but he could, you know, have asked. (I hear the Church pays some pretty formidable lawyers). And crime or not, he must have understood – if, frankly, the average bishop has any moral understanding at all – that it was a massive breach of trust *and* a grave sin on the part of the adult abuser, who acted with full knowledge of and consent to their own wrong-doing.

    As for all those “I don’t remember”-s, well, if his memory is that defective perhaps it’s time that His Grace was removed from any position of responsibility within the church. Although I suspect that he’d have a pretty clear recall of what was going on, say, financially during the same time – but then I have a nasty mind.

  3. FrMichael says:

    I was of the opinion that Carlson was among the better of the US bishops, but after this pathetic experience on the stand I consider him among the rest.

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