One year after Rev. Robert Carlson’s suicide, lessons learned on child sexual abuse

Penobscot Community Health Center CEO Kenneth Schmidt talks about the Rev. Robert Carlson during a press conference in November 2011, prior to the release of any child abuse allegations.
Penobscot Community Health Center CEO Kenneth Schmidt talks about the Rev. Robert Carlson during a press conference in November 2011, prior to the release of any child abuse allegations.
Posted Nov. 12, 2012, at 9:16 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 12, 2012, at 3:34 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — For organizations and people he was associated with, the Rev. Robert Carlson’s suicide one year ago pulled back the curtain of silence surrounding the issue of child sexual abuse by people in power.

While these organizations deny knowing about Carlson’s aberrant behavior, they now say they’ve changed policies and practices after a Maine State Police report revealed abuse going back decades.

Discussing Carlson’s sexual abuse of children was the first step in healing for the East Orrington Congregational Church, where Carlson was a senior pastor for 25 years, and for Penobscot Community Health Care, where he served as president for several years before his death.

Both did internal reviews of Carlson’s role in their organizations, and each has made adjustments to policies that are designed to catch perpetrators and protect society’s most vulnerable citizens.

“We will not forget the damage that was done from no one knowing,” the Rev. Carl Schreiber, pastor of the East Orrington Congregational Church, said Friday. “We have taken a lot of measures to make people aware and make sure there [are] safety precautions in place, especially for our children.”

Carlson, a well-known and gregarious religious and civic leader, committed suicide on Nov. 13, 2011, after learning he was under investigation for sexually abusing a boy.

Carlson, who jumped to his death from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, had abused children as far back as 36 years before his death, the heavily redacted 104-page state police report concluded.

The investigation into Carlson’s suicide, conducted by the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department, revealed that Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, a longtime friend, told Carlson about the investigation and the last person to see Carlson alive was one of his victims — a boy of just 11 when they met. The man is now 53.

Carlson helped found and was president of PCHC. He also was a founder of Hope House, a Bangor shelter for those with drug and alcohol addiction; a former chaplain for Husson College (now Husson University), as well as the Bangor and Brewer police and fire departments; an instructor at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy; and a former jail administrator for the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department.

“As a result of the tragic accusations surrounding Carlson, although none of them involved PCHC in any way, PCHC is now conducting even more comprehensive background checks on nonmedical staff,” Kenneth Schmidt, PCHC’s chief executive officer, said Friday. “We continue to provide comprehensive training on mandatory reporting — recognizing child abuse and reporting suspected child abuse.”

Husson officials also did an internal review of Carlson’s role there and changed its hiring policies, university spokeswoman Julie Green said Thursday. Carlson was a part-time chaplain for the school until 2008, when he was confronted by then-Husson president William Beardsley, who called him into his office to discuss vague reports of “a sexual relationship,” the state police report said. Carlson resigned.

Beardsley, who was appointed to the state Board of Education in September, also told state police that he got a call in 2005 from a minister friend in Vermont who said, “Bob Carlson was not who he appeared to be.” The friend warned Beardsley to keep an eye on the volunteer chaplain, who at the time worked with the Husson football team.

“He was a part-time chaplain and made like $1,000 a year and we did not do background checks,” Green said Thursday. “Before, we only did them for teachers. Now, we do background checks on everyone.”

While some changes have been made by the agencies associated with Carlson, the sister of one of his victims said a cloud of conspiracy still remains because of Carlson’s position in the community.

“I don’t think anything has come out of this to protect our children in the future from other pedophiles,” she said. “People have been too interested in covering their asses.”

More work needs to be done on recognizing signs of child sexual abuse, Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci said Thursday. He said the state’s mandatory reporting law should be reviewed and possibly revised in order to give it some real teeth.

“I think it’s important to continue to have this discussion,” Baldacci said. “I know it’s a painful discussion. We’re not a big town, and it’s painful, but we have to continue to discuss it. We don’t want this pain to be repeated.”

The statute, first passed in 1965 and amended several times since then, requires 32 different categories of professions — including doctors, school officials and law enforcement officers — to immediately report any suspected child abuse to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

That could include the former president of Husson University, a Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy and detectives, a Bangor police officer and a therapist who treated some of Carlson’s victims, all of whom said in the state police report that they had either received information about or witnessed Carlson engage in criminal or inappropriate sexual behavior.

R. Christopher Almy, district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, said shortly after the state police report was issued that the statute was not clear about whether a mandatory reporter could be prosecuted for not reporting abuse.

“The DA declined to do anything because there is no mandatory reporting strategy,” said Baldacci, a lawyer. “Strengthening the mandatory reporting law and probably adding some mandatory training is needed. There is a whole mindset that has to be affected.”

One thing the community has learned from the death of Carlson, Almy said, is “not to assume that a person’s position in the community gives them a corner on legal and moral behavior. Don’t assume that a person could or could not commit an offense based on their reputation.”

The prosecutor said he believes “the community is more aware” of the problem now but that the culture of silence regarding the sexual abuse of children remains.

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