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?

The members of the congregation have decided they believe Carlson, they trust him, and they do not find him capable of being a child pornographer. (There's been no evidence or claims of child molestation; in fact, Hughes has approved requests for Carlson to continue taking kids on camping trips.)

The ordeal has tested the congregants, however. Several have complained about their treatment by investigators. Fortner and Keys, the former and current congregation presidents, filed affidavits saying they felt intimidated and pressured by federal agents interrogating them.

"My personal feeling was that this was beyond the realm of "Tell us what you know,' and instead it was "We'll keep badgering you until you tell us what we want to hear,' " Fortner says.

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

Agents say they showed congregants a collection of seized photos to see if church members could identify any of the children. Hughes questioned why they needed to show the entire photos and not just the faces.

"They were trying to turn the church against him, put pressure on him to plead," Androphy says.

"They were trying to separate me from the herd, so to speak," Carlson says. "They were spreading false rumors, trying to create the illusion there was something going on that wasn't. They'd interview congregants and say, "How do you think he can afford that big house he has on a pastor's salary?' It was really hard-core intimidation by federal officers."

In court documents, Schultz says all meetings with witnesses were cordial, but professional. "There was no yelling or shouting. No witness was at any time threatened" or "intimidated," he wrote.

He wrote that "all witnesses were specifically told, on several occasions, that the only information the government was interested in was the truth, regardless of whether the truth was helpful to the government's case or hurtful to the government's case."

Some witnesses have made inconsistent and conflicting statements about whether Carlson confessed to the church council, Schultz said. The government "was and is concerned that the statements of certain of those witnesses may rise to the level of false statements to federal agents."

Androphy scoffs at that claim. He insists the government was frantically scrambling to find another way to make its case after seeing the vigorous challenge to the search warrant.

"Customs expects these cases to go their way," he says. "They play by their own rules, and they don't get many people investigating these cases" for the defense, "because of a lack of resources or because the defendant doesn't want the publicity. Customs just wants to gather enough information any way they can to make you cringe and enter a plea, and they never have to deal with the truth."

Carlson, of course, says he has no intention of pleading guilty or slinking away. He has all but finished his doctoral project, and he has no plans to back away from his efforts to help gay and lesbian youths.

If the congregation, and Carlson's lawyers, are correct -- that this is a good man caught up in a humiliating ordeal that will scar him for life -- then the "Porno Pastor" is indeed a victim.

But he'll survive. And he's not the most aggrieved victim in the case.

There are 80 or so pictures in a file that show the real victims. Those dead-eyed children, posing or engaging in atrocious acts, have lost more than Carlson has. And they will never recover.

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