Carlson’s abuse followed familiar pattern, but few spoke up

Posted Aug. 02, 2012, at 8:32 p.m.
Rev. Robert Carlson
Rev. Robert Carlson
Erik Steele
Erik Steele

BANGOR, Maine — Revelations in a Maine State Police report that the Rev. Robert Carlson sexually abused multiple children have raised questions about how he got away with it for decades, especially since the report revealed police officers, detectives, a former university president and others expressed concerns about Carlson’s disturbing behavior with young people.

Carlson was a serial child sex abuser, Lt. Christopher Coleman, commander of the Maine State Police’s Major Crimes Unit for the northern part of the state, said after the 104-page report was made public Wednesday. Carlson abused children for decades and “it caused a lot of trauma to many people,” the lieutenant said.

“Clearly the report indicates there are several victims and there may be more out there,” Coleman said. “There may be other victims out there who did not participate in this process.”

Robert Gossart of Salisbury Cove, the Maine representative for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also known as SNAP, said there is one major reason criminals such as Carlson and Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who recently was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse, got away with their deviant crimes for so long.

“Stupid pedophiles get caught,” Gossart, who himself was sexually abused by a clergy member as a young boy, said Thursday. “The smart ones are the most dangerous. They get into positions of power and gain the trust of parents and of communities, and easy access to children. Smart abusers are in control. It has happened hundreds of times.”

Carlson was a well-known and well-liked community leader. He was the president of Penobscot Community Health Care, chaplain for police and fire departments and Husson University, a pastor at East Orrington Congregational Church, and was recognized by the Boy Scouts days before he died.

When a child is sexually abused, “there is a feeling of shock, helplessness and guilt, often to the point where the abused think it was all their fault,” Gossart said. Perpetrators twist the truth and “the guilt is put on the back of the victim.”

He added, “Most survivors do not speak. They are forced into silence, a painful silence. They think no one will believe them, and oftentimes they are right.”

What survivors of sexual abuse should know is that it is not their fault and they are not alone, Beverly Fortson, a behavioral scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said recently at a conference in Florida.

Child sexual abuse affects “one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys by age 18,” she said. “Most of it goes unreported,” and, in her opinion, the numbers are “really underestimated.”

Most child sexual abuse, an estimated 90 percent of all reported incidents, involves people known to the young victims, and of that number, 60 percent are family members such as stepfathers or friends, Fortson said.

Most offenders are male, she added.

“It’s not the fault of the victim. It’s the fault of the perpetrator,” Fortson said.

According to the CDC, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investigated more than 40,000 child sexual abuse cases in 2010, including 4,072 involving Maine children.

Carlson committed suicide Nov. 13, 2011, by jumping from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, just three days after Maine State Police began their child sexual abuse investigation and the day after Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, his longtime friend, informed him of the investigation.

Dr. Erik Steele, a Bangor physician and chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems,said Thursday that the lack of action by people who had hints that criminal behavior was happening is another reason pedophiles get away with their crimes.

It’s all about disbelief and denial, he said.

“I think first and foremost we can’t believe it of these people,” Steele said. “It’s almost unimaginable. If … a favorite high school teacher or a community leader like Carlson [is abusing children], you just can’t believe it.”

He said he was “stunned and embarrassed into subsequent silence” after his favorite male high school teacher tried unsuccessfully to have sex with him when he was a teenager, and only came forward about his own personal experiences after Carlson committed suicide.

It’s this disbelief that causes adults to minimize evidence and fail to respond to the red flags of possible abuse, he said, adding that people don’t want to believe.

“If I saw Bob Carlson rob a bank, I’d call 911 or call police,” Steele said. “We don’t treat [child sex abuse] as a crime, and we don’t call police often enough.”

Victims are not alone, and they should know it’s not their fault and that healing is possible, said Christopher Anderson, who has family in Gouldsboro and is executive director of Minnesota-based MaleSurvivor, a not-for-profit organization committed to preventing, healing and eliminating all forms of sexual victimization of boys and men.

“Our culture still stigmatizes and shames victims into silence,” he said Thursday. “In the past 18 years, our organization has helped provide hope, healing and support to hundreds of thousands of survivors, their loved ones, and the professionals who work with them.”

It is often assumed that victims are doomed to a life of pain and struggle, but it “absolutely is possible for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to fully heal and recover a life,” Anderson said. “It’s true the burden of abuse is heavy, but with help, survivors can put back the pieces of their souls that were shattered.”

The sister of one of Carlson’s victims, who was an 11-year-old boy when Carlson befriended the family and is now a 52-year-old man living in Bangor, said Thursday that her brother never knew that Carlson was sexually abusing others.

“It made him sick to think that other kids had gone through it,” she said. “I think in his head, he thought it was his fault.”

Eight months after Carlson ’s suicide ended four decades of abuse against her brother, he is now recovering.

“He’s looking good and sounding good and I think it’s going to get better,” the man’s sister said. “My husband said Carlson got off easy. Sandusky is in jail, but I think [Carlson] would still be trying to contact my brother if he was here and this way he can’t.”

“He took a father, a son, a brother and uncle,” and “now we’re free,” she said.

The pastor of the East Orrington Congregational Church, where Carlson was a senior pastor for 25 years, said members of his church are not hiding from the truth of Carlson’s horrific actions.

“We’ve been upfront for eight months,” the Rev. Carl Schreiber said Thursday. “It hasn’t rested but it’s no longer a weight that we’re going to carry. We’re moving forward and we’ve been moving forward.

“We’re saddened, but we’re not going to dwell on the horrors of life,” he added. “We’re certainly praying with the victims and praying with the families and praying with any of the people who [knew] Bob. I think everybody in that category is saddened by what has happened.”

While the public image Carlson had in the Bangor area was positive, it does not outweigh his criminal behavior.

He is not a good guy who did bad; he was a bad guy who did some good, Steele said.

“There are other Bob Carlsons out there and they’re doing it now and people have suspicions” they are failing to report, the Bangor physician said. “A crime is being committed and a child is being harmed.

“Don’t be deceived,” Steele added. “Don’t talk yourself out of it. Go to the authorities. The Bob Carlson story is: There is more to do.”

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