We write because we are deeply distressed about the tragedy of Bob Carlson’s suicide and allegations of child sexual abuse and we wish to identify powerful issues so far not reported in the Bangor Daily News.
First, reporter Eric Russell’s article in the Jan. 14-15 issue declared that Carlson’s credentials were “exaggerated.” The truth here is that Carlson deceived and lied intentionally about his credentials for the purpose of falsely gaining professional credibility and people’s trust.
Second, as a result of this we all need to question whether Carlson was ordained at all and thus should not be honored by being called reverend. Most denominations require psychological testing, academic transcripts, multiple recommendations and examination by the ordaining body at a minimum. There is no evidence that any credible institution asked for any of these requirements, that he passed them or that he was ordained.
This self-created “reverend” used his deceptions to enter into people’s lives, minister to a congregation, officiate at weddings and funerals, serve on boards of local institutions and have a powerful presence in the Bangor-Brewer community. As the cloak of darkness is removed about who Carlson was as a person with such a presence in the community, we are left deeply concerned about his influence and counsel to those who came in contact with him or sought his spiritual direction.
His deception was so overwhelmingly effective that a quotation in one of the BDN’s articles was that he was “larger than life.”
Next, unreported is the incredible effect of the alleged sexual abuse of a minor. The journey from being a victim to becoming a survivor needs professional assistance and takes a great deal of time. Additionally, when the alleged abuse is committed by a “clergy person” the trauma is intensified for the victim. This is because the alleged perpetrator represents the divine and is expected to be trustworthy and above reproach.
Abuse destroys one’s positive view of clergy and makes healthy spiritual growth very difficult or impossible. In addition, because he was a trusted person it made it extremely difficult for a victim to come forward or for anyone to speak about any suspicions or concerns they might have had about him.
Then there is the issue of possible damage to the public’s view of all clergy and religious institutions. Those who have faithfully prepared for ministry in accord with established procedure and including education, field work, personality testing, background search and conducting an honest and trustworthy ministry are also damaged as a result. This is a sad legacy.
Shortly after Carlson’s suicide there was an article the BDN published urging the public’s need to grant forgiveness for Carlson. It is our understanding that healthy and effective forgiveness is best extended when the full truth of any offenses are known and their effects more fully experienced by those involved and the public.
Any attempt to grant premature forgiveness can only cover over the hurt and damage caused to the victim or victims and delay healing for all involved. Therefore we believe that the article about forgiveness was extremely premature and might have made the victim or victims’ healing journeys more difficult.
We claim Jesus’ words: “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free”(John 8:32).
None of us can at this point measure what the fuller legacy of Carlson’s life will be. Certainly some of his “ministry” has been reported in an extremely positive light. We believe that a more accurate legacy can emerge over time and be based on as much truth as can be uncovered. Carlson’s deceptive life has left darkness in its wake. Only the full light of truth can bring true healing in this situation. To that end we affirm the above.
The Rev. Jeffrey Belcher holds a Master of Divinity degree from Bangor Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (now retired) and lives in Tenants Harbor. The Rev. Constance Wells holds a Master of Divinity degree from Bangor Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (now retired) and lives in Damariscotta.