"I hope to grow old with you," he said to the youths at the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese. "My commitment to all of you is to keep you … with Christ."
But his spiritual pact with the young carried heavier burdens than his flock could imagine.
During the previous four years, Carlson had investigated clergy misconduct for the church. He was among the first wave of bishops to confront sexual abuse of minors by priests two decades before the scandal would gain notoriety in 2002.
One of Carlson's earliest cases focused on the Rev. Thomas Adamson, who would emerge as one of the country's most notorious pedophile priests. As instructed, Carlson reported Adamson's abuses to his supervisor, the archbishop, who chose not to suspend Adamson.
In fact, the church allowed the admitted pedophile to be reassigned to other churches, where he would find more victims. While Carlson disagreed with those moves, he acknowledges that he could have done more to stop Adamson and that he didn't report the priest's crimes to authorities.
"I didn't do that, and that was a mistake," Carlson told the Post-Dispatch.
The Adamson case was one of two early examples of the church's struggles to deal with priests who sexually abused minors, said Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children." The other case was of former priest Gilbert Gauthe, who pleaded guilty in 1985 of abusing 11 boys in Louisiana.
"Both men were genuine pedophiles who had abused many young victims," Berry said. "And they were both repeatedly transferred by bishops who clearly did not have the concern for children and families at the forefront of the decisions they made."
Carlson, who recently became archbishop of St. Louis, says the mistakes he made in the 1980s have shaped the way he has dealt with clergy sexual abuse in the two dioceses he has led since 1995. The archbishop said those lessons will guide him in St. Louis.
The Rev. Kevin McDonough, a priest in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has coordinated the archdiocese's response to clergy misconduct since 1990. He said Carlson "went to school on the failings" with Adamson.
"When (Carlson) learned the lessons that that terrible situation taught, he became a ferocious advocate for the church cleaning house," McDonough said. "And he's remained that way."
The Post-Dispatch reviewed several hundred internal church documents and transcripts of testimony showing Carlson's involvement in the Adamson case.
In December 1980, Carlson was told about a rumor: Adamson had taken two eighth-grade boys to the YMCA, where he grabbed one of the boy's genitals in the whirlpool.
Carlson confronted Adamson, and the priest admitted to the abuse. He said it was an isolated incident. Carlson told him to resign or face suspension.
Instead, Adamson appealed to Archbishop John Roach, leader of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, for support. Roach decided to allow Adamson to remain at Immaculate Conception parish in Columbia Heights, Minn. But there were conditions, including that he "cease all youth involvement." Any violation would mean the end of Adamson's career as a parish priest.
Meanwhile, the parents of one boy told Carlson they would go to police unless Roach transferred Adamson from Immaculate Conception. Carlson then advised Roach to send Adamson to a two-week inpatient treatment program, and Roach agreed. The archdiocese's personnel director argued for placing Adamson in another parish when the treatment was completed. Carlson disagreed.
"I didn't trust Thomas Adamson," Carlson said later in a 1987 deposition. "I felt that we would come to regret that decision."
Within days, Roach made Adamson an associate pastor at Risen Savior in Apple Valley, Minn., and he took Carlson off the Adamson case. Roach thought Carlson was too angry with Adamson to be objective.
Carlson acknowledges his anger toward Adamson. The assaults were a violation of "a sacred trust," Carlson said.
"I just had a gut feeling that there would be more trouble down the line," he said in the 1987 deposition.
By June 1981, Adamson was playing golf with teenagers, already the fourth violation of his agreement with Roach. Several accusations against Adamson at Risen Savior would be made over the next three years. Still, Roach wrote a memo to the archdiocese's personnel director June 22, 1984, saying they "ought to think seriously" about giving Adamson his own parish again.
"He apparently has had an excellent record for the past few years and God knows, he is a superb parish priest," Roach wrote.
A week later, Carlson received a phone call detailing yet another accusation involving Adamson at two archdiocesan parishes from 1978 to 1982.
Carlson was furious. He realized that Adamson had lied to him when he said the assault at the whirlpool was an isolated incident. Roach put Carlson back on the case.
"Handle it," the archbishop told him.
Carlson again confronted Adamson, who again admitted the abuse. The priest also "agreed that it probably would be first-degree criminal sexual contact," according to a memo Carlson wrote to Roach.
But Carlson didn't go to police. Instead, in the same memo, Carlson recommended that "given the seriousness of our exposure that the Archdiocese posture itself in such a way that any publicity will be minimized."
By August 1984, the archdiocese finally acknowledged the reality that Adamson's crimes were going to be made public. And indeed, in December, one family filed the first lawsuit against Adamson and the archdiocese, shining an early light on both the issue of clergy sexual abuse and how the church in St. Paul and Minneapolis had mismanaged the problem.
Adamson was eventually sent to a facility for problem priests run by the Servants of the Paraclete near St. Louis, and then returned to Winona, where the Vatican eventually defrocked him.
By one estimate, Adamson abused at least 35 minors over 24 years. In a deposition, the priest admitted to abusing children in 10 of the 13 parishes in which he was placed by his bishops.
Now 75, the former priest lives near Eau Claire, Wis., where he last worked in a nursing home. He could not be reached for comment.
IN HINDSIGHT …
Carlson told the Post-Dispatch last month that he believed the parents of at least one of Adamson's alleged victims had already gone to the police, so he didn't think the church needed to.
"Hindsight being 20-20, perhaps I should have," he said.
Going to the police on his own, without the knowledge or permission of the archbishop, surely would have derailed a promising future in the church, said Mary Segers, co-editor of "The Political, Social and Economic Consequences of Catholic Clerical Sex Abuse."
"I think this would have ended his career as a churchman," said Segers, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark. "He would have remained an auxiliary bishop the rest of his life and not risen higher in the church hierarchy."
But the church was not alone decades ago in its failure to report abuse of minors, said Nicholas Cafardi, author of "Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops' Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children." Almost no one was going to the authorities about child abuse, Cafardi said.
"Any auxiliary bishop who favored going to the authorities in the early '80s was out of step — not only with the clerical culture, but also with the predominant culture of the times," he said.
Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul who has represented dozens of victims of clergy sexual abuse in Minnesota, has deposed Carlson several times and takes a less sympathetic view. Anderson says Carlson was an integral part of the system of deception that existed then.
Carlson "was active in the concealment and the deception, and the deceit of the police, the public and the parishioners," Anderson said.
Carlson, however, describes himself in much narrower terms. He has said repeatedly, in depositions and interviews with the Post-Dispatch, that Roach's instructions to him were clear, well-defined and limited in scope.
"My job was to investigate and report back to the archbishop what I found out, and that's exactly what I did," Carlson told the Post-Dispatch.
Carlson recalled the beginning of the Adamson investigation and how he was in disbelief that a priest could sexually abuse a child. He said he questioned himself as he took on the case.
"I remember running one day and thinking to myself, … 'Am I handling it the way it should be handled?'"
When the abuse crisis broke nationally in 2002 and became a public spectacle, Carlson acted on lessons he had learned from his time in Minnesota. As bishop of the diocese in South Dakota, he called the state's attorney general and offered to open up the church's files.
Carlson has required local, state and national background checks for priests who come into his dioceses from the outside as well as other diocesan workers. He also has installed "compliance officers" on his staffs — an idea he got from being on the board of a bank — to ensure such checks were managed correctly.
In St. Louis, Carlson said he will review the systems already in place for training, background checks and "norms of conduct." When he arrived in Saginaw, Mich., in 2005 to serve as bishop there, Carlson said, he went through the file of every priest.
"You gotta know who you've got," he explained.
Will he do the same in St. Louis?
"It'll take a little longer," he said. "But yes. Absolutely."