Graven Images

A respected preacher gets busted for child pornography on his computer. Has he delved into the worst of cyberspace depravity or just the stuff of scholarly research?

April Day is 25 years old and, on the phone at least, as perky as her name.

She enthusiastically describes how she's been a member of Zion Lutheran Church since she was born; her family has long been going to the 86-year-old church, which is tucked away in a northeast corner of Woodland Heights that has stubbornly eluded gentrification.

As a ten-year-old, she says, her spiritual life got a great gift with the arrival of a new pastor, Don Carlson.

Pastor Don Carlson is a kiddie porn trafficker, the government says.
Pastor Don Carlson is a kiddie porn trafficker, the government says.

"He's just a wonderful, wonderful person," she says. "He's taught me a lot."

Day has gone on youth trips with Carlson, as both a kid and a chaperoning adult. "He's awesome and good with kids -- he'll let them discover things on their own. He's very intellectual, very funny."

So it came as a shock when Day's mother called her while she was on spring break two years ago with this news: Carlson had been served with a search warrant, and federal officials had seized his computer. The warrant said that Carlson was using the Internet to traffic in child pornography.

"I just about fell on the floor," Day says.

The reports quickly spread throughout the 550-member congregation. Channel 11 was on the air with stories about the "Porno Pastor." It was a nightmare story -- a man they had entrusted with their kids and with their faith was being accused of the vilest of crimes.

"I just thought it was a really sick joke," says Peggy Fortner, who has served as president of the congregation.

It wasn't that Carlson had never made waves at the church -- the doctoral thesis he was working on, one that reflected an abiding passion, was devoted to teaching churches how to accept and encourage gay and lesbian teens.

That was a subject that some, especially older members of Zion, would just as soon not hear about. But Carlson almost relished battling that silence. He respected the hesitancy of some congregants but felt that benign willfulness not to deal with the issue caused Lutheran churches to unwittingly abandon troubled youths.

The congregational meeting after the warrant was served was tense. Lutherans are -- as listeners to Garrison Keillor's radio tales of Lake Wobegone know -- not the most demonstrative people. But some church members made clear that they were deeply troubled.

"I assume there are people in any situation like that who would jump to conclusions," says Jamie Keys, the church's president. "There's always going to be people who disagree."

"For some people, it was a question of what would people on the outside looking in say about all this," Fortner says.

But as the shock wore off, people at the meeting began to think less of just how awful the charges were and more of the man who was being charged.

"What was heard over and over again was "This is a good man; we're dealing with a situation that we don't know a lot about, but he's the man to lead us,' " Fortner says. "There was just a tremendous amount of trust, and it managed to cross the generational lines. There were older members of the congregation, people who'd been there 40 to 50 years, and they dearly love this man."

Carlson was put on administrative leave temporarily, and was soon restored full-time to his duties. "He's just a great man," Day says.

Great or not, Carlson is also a man who had 80 or so examples of child pornography on the computer seized by the government. And church members had to keep their faith even as federal agents eagerly showed them the sordid evidence in interviews.

Like a politician caught at a strip joint, Carlson -- through his lawyers -- says he was simply "doing research." Unlike the gentlemen's club patron, he may have a point.

His thesis proposal, filed with the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Minnesota a year before the search warrant was issued, clearly states that the Internet would be a key part of his work.

"The Internet can provide chat rooms where [gay teens] can meet other gay youth, make friends, and know that they are not alone; but it can also be a place where they meet people who aren't so very friendly," he wrote. "The Internet can be a sort of gay Playboy magazine for young inquiring eyes; but it can also deliver things that are even more obscene and degrading.I now believe that a major factor heightening the urgency for congregations to end their silence is the Internet."

Carlson's thesis proposal doesn't come out and say just what he would be doing on the Internet: posing as a gay youth in chat rooms. "But that's the only way he could find out what was happening to young gay people on the Internet," says Joel Androphy, one of Carlson's lawyers.

Androphy and his associate, Geoffrey Berg, say Carlson visited on-line chat rooms for gay youths and found precisely what he feared: adult men posing as kids, passing on photos of teens and preteens in sexual poses. "He was bombarded" with pictures even though he never asked for them, says Androphy.

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