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?

Since the feds have a computer that has dozens and dozens of child porno pictures on it, they'd seem to have a pretty simple case of possession against Carlson. Many such cases quickly end in pleas, either from the defendant's shock at being exposed or his realization that jury sympathy isn't a good bet once the evidence gets passed around.

But even after seizing his computer, the feds took more than a year to indict Carlson. (They did it to great publicity during Holy Week, just days before Easter.) And almost two years after the indictment, there is no trial in sight.

Much of the delay can be blamed on someone else who was in the chat rooms with Carlson, a onetime New York cop named Harry Conners. He initiated the investigation against Carlson, and his decidedly offbeat character might result in the case against Carlson getting dropped.

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

Conners admits he became an Internet chat "addict" and posed as a gay teen. It's impossible to determine just what he's done on-line; when Carlson's lawyers subpoenaed Conners's computers, he discarded one he said was irrelevant to the case. He claims he ruined data on the other one when he accidentally dropped it on a sidewalk.

The only certainty, it appears, is that Conners and Carlson encountered each other in cyberspace's seamiest underside: chat rooms humming with explicit exchanges about sex, presumably among gay teens. Conners calls his time there "a fantasy, a game." Their secret sessions on the computer exploded into the criminal case with allegations by Conners that the reverend relayed unsolicited kiddie porn pictures to him.

Carlson the preacher insists his cloaked forays into the chat rooms were necessary evils, conducted in the legitimate quest of academic research. Whatever the motives by either man, Carlson no doubt desperately wishes he never came across Harry Conners in his exploration of the computer world. However, the government's bungling attempts to deal with Conners might be the best thing to ever happen to Carlson as he fights to clear his name.

Don Carlson is Lutheran through and through, born in Starbuck, Minnesota, 50 years ago, raised in that small town and pretty much destined for the church from the start. He got an undergraduate degree in biology and theology from Minnesota's Concordia University, and a master's in divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1976.

He wanted from the beginning to focus on youths. He took an opportunity to work part-time as a pastor for a church in La Grange, Texas, and part-time in a Lutheran camping program. In 1985 he left La Grange for Zion Lutheran in Houston.

Zion is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the more liberal of the two Lutheran synods. It's more common in the South for Lutheran churches to be part of the Missouri Synod, which can be as conservative as any Southern Baptist church.

Evangelical Lutheran churches ordain women; Missouri Synod churches do not. Evangelical Lutherans have also -- perhaps gingerly -- tried to deal with controversies such as gay pastors and gay youths.

In many ways, Carlson has been at the cutting edge of the latter.

"This is an issue that we are sorting through as a national church," he says. "We always talk about it like it's an issue that's "out there' or that gays and lesbians are all adults. What we need to realize is that if we have a 50-member youth group in our congregation, statistics show that at least five of those will be gay or lesbian. The damage that the silence does on this subject is incredible."

Carlson has told congregants who ask that yes, he's gay, but he is guarded about it in an interview, still aware that some of his congregants would rather not hear about it. "As a church we are sorting though this issue, and in an effort to help them sort through it at their own speed and on their own terms, I consider my sexual orientation a private matter," Carlson says.

Still, he has kept his congregation informed about his work with HATCH, the Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals, where he was a co-director for a time with Peter Poit.

"He was extremely well liked by the kids," Poit says. "He gave them a role model, and he knew where to put limits on them. You've got to give kids limits and goals, and he did that."

Carlson also kept church members informed about his doctoral thesis, in which he was establishing a curriculum "that would both sensitize congregations to the needs of these [gay and lesbian] youths and enable congregations to minister to them in an affirming and helpful manner."

Carlson is a circumspect man. Anyone being interviewed in his lawyer's office -- with the attorney sitting nearby, ready to pounce if talk drifts to the facts of the case -- would probably be just as wary. But even while lecturing to congregants on something potentially as controversial as helping gay youths, Carlson's delivery is pretty much a monotone.

"You're not going to get a fire-and-brimstone sermon from him," says Fortner, the past church president. "His classes are almost a conversation with you; it's not a lecture, it's "Let's take this journey together.' If you're looking for emoting and elaborate hand gestures and raising your voice, that's not him."

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