Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Does Sara Jane Olson deserve forgiveness even without public statements of remorse? Retired Archbishop Flynn thinks so

Archbishop Harry Flynn
Archbishop Harry Flynn

Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn introduced his thoughts on the return of Sara Jane Olson to Minnesota with two caveats.

“I have tremendous respect and fondness for police officers,” said the man who served as the head of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 1994 to 2008. Many of his family members, including two brothers, were police officers, he said, “and the police officers in St. Paul do wonderful work.”

Secondly, back in 1975, when she was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the woman then known as Kathleen Soliah, did “very bad things that caused people great pain,” said Flynn, who was the head of the archdiocese at the time of her arrest and trial.

Forgiveness not difficult for many?
But in a telephone conversation Wednesday, he said that her return to Minnesota to serve a year’s parole should not be difficult for people of most religious faiths.

“If we call ourselves Christians, we have to follow a certain way of life,” Flynn said. “It’s a mandate of Jesus Christ: Be forgiving, as your heavenly father forgives you. Sara Jane Olson did something very bad, but the fact is, no matter how bad, we need to be forgiving if we’re going to follow Jesus Christ.”

During his time as head of the archdiocese, Flynn was a strong supporter of Catholic education and an outspoken advocate on social justice causes. Over the years, he was critical of some Minnesota budget cuts’ impact on the poor and in 2003 issued a controversial pastoral letter on the effects of racism on society.

The retired archbishop acknowledges that he is not a deep student of other religions but believes “that the obligation (of forgiveness) is a part of most religions.”

First it was the police unions of Los Angeles and St. Paul and then Gov. Tim Pawlenty who put a huge spotlight on Olson’s release from prison. The unions and the governor both wanted to prevent Olson from returning to her husband, grown daughters and home in St. Paul to serve her parole. They insisted she should be required to stay in California to complete the terms of her sentence, which includes the parole.

At his Tuesday news conference outlining his revised budget, Pawlenty was asked about his position on Olson.

The governor said he’d never before inserted himself into a case about where a released prisoner should be paroled, but he called the Olson case “unique.” He said he’d requested that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger block Olson’s leaving California because he wanted to show his support for police and because she’d been involved in “domestic terrorism.”

The Los Angeles police union continued to try to block her return to Minnesota almost to the moment she boarded the plane that carried her to the Twin Cities.  The union again asked Schwarzenegger to intervene, saying she should not be allowed to come to Minnesota because she was a fugitive — and therefore not a legal resident of the state — when she was arrested in 1999.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections agrees that because of her fugitive status, Olson was not a legal resident of the state at the time of her arrest. But corrections officials said that under the federal Compact for Adult Offender Supervision law, parolees should be returned to their home state, or the home state of their family.

Schwarzenegger, for the second time in as many days, refused to give into the pressure, instead following the advice of the California Department of Corrections.

Why did the police, Pawlenty and so many others react so strongly to allowing Olson to return?

The danger of knee-jerk reactions
“We live in a society of quick and constant communications,” said Flynn. “We want immediate answers. That sometimes leads to knee-jerk reactions. … We all make these quick responses.I have, you have — we all do. They’re responses often made thoughtlessly. But those aren’t the responses we’re called on to make.”

Knee-jerk responses, often made in anger, can be self-destructive, he said.

“Anger destroys us,” he said. “The longer we hold on to it, the more it limits our ability to see clearly and live joyfully. It controls and defines our lives.”

Forgiveness, he said, “frees us.”

A story in MinnPost Tuesday about the role of forgiveness in Olson’s release from prison, generated a large number of thoughtful responses.

One reader, Eric Ostermeier, took on the article in detail at his blog, Smart Politics.

Another reader, for example, wrote: “Without remorse, what is the point of forgiveness? It is an empty gesture completely lost on the recipient.”

What about remorse?

I asked the archbishop whether forgiveness needs to be preceded by a show of remorse or repentance by the offender?

According to Flynn, it’s not necessary for Olson, now 62, to go to the center of St. Paul and repent and beg forgiveness of the rest of us. Her life’s actions speak more loudly than her words could.

“Repent,” Flynn said, comes “from the Greek — taking on a new direction, a new way of life. Repentence is to look in a new direction. It is to hear with new ears, see with new eyes. … Has she repented? She certainly had taken on a different life [when she began a new life in St. Paul]. Has she made public statements [of remorse]?  I don’t think so. But I don’t think she’d do today what she did then. Young people often do foolish things. … I am not saying, you are not saying, nobody is saying that she didn’t do a horrendous thing. But she has taken a new lease on life.”

But, he added, even if she had not changed her way of life, people of most faiths would be required to forgive.

“If I’m Jewish, I need to see what the Psalmists say to me,” Flynn said. “If I’m Christian, I’d better stop in my tracks and ask myself, ‘What does Jesus Christ say about this?’ “

Perhaps, he said, this chapter of the Sara Jane Olson saga will turn out to be instructive.

“We all need our consciousness raised with this issue,” Flynn said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Starr Morgan on 03/19/2009 - 10:12 am.

    I just have to say this, the police in both St. Paul and LA are hired to
    keep the peace and arrest offenders. They do not make our laws,
    that is the job of our legislators. It seems that some Minnesota police
    officers and some Minnesota legislators seem to have opinions that
    perhaps should be kept private and only shared with friends and
    families members.

    After ‘hiding’ in the St. Paul area for 23 years with not even a traffic
    violation I think we are all going to safe now that Sara Olson has arrived home in St. Paul. Don’t we all have more important, pressing and overwhelming situations to deal with than making ridiculous comments on a crime(s) that happened long ago and the person who pleaded guilty has served her time, as reported, as a ‘model prisoner’?

    Let’s move on . . . and the Sara and her family move on as well.

    Thank you.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/19/2009 - 10:30 am.

    We ought to exercise biblical forgiveness.

    The bigger question is whether God forgives her. We do not know the answer to that question. The bible does say “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…”

    Sarah Jane my not acknowledge that her crimes were wrong or offer remorse publically. But we do know what God requires.

  3. Submitted by sue salmela on 03/19/2009 - 11:16 am.

    I trust Bishop Flynn’s “freeing” opinion more than the politicians “angry” opinions..

    Everyone needs to move on.

  4. Submitted by Bill Krause on 03/19/2009 - 11:30 am.

    “‘What does Jesus Christ say about this?’ ”

    Thankfully, we know what Jesus Christ has to say about this.

    “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. — Luke 17:3”

  5. Submitted by William Malo on 03/19/2009 - 11:40 am.

    Regardless of what christian’s do, or what their god does for that matter, I have no difficulty in accepting the woman’s punishment as equivalent to forgiveness. That is what we do in our society. Her attitude has become irrelevant. While it may have served her defense to feign remorse, she chose not to and was so judged and incarcerated by her peers. She served her time and is now living according to the terms of her parole — end of story. Only the self righteous feel the need to drag this out — how moral.

  6. Submitted by Carl Karasti on 03/19/2009 - 12:13 pm.

    It’s important to recognize that the person is (in religious language) a child of God and that the act is simply something the person has done – whether well guided or not. Unconditional Love arises from an awareness of this. We can disapprove of, even hate, what a person has done and still love the person – this fellow human being – this child of God.

    Most often, we need to be able to be aware of this difference between the person and the act even if it’s obvious that we are dealing with the same person – a person who may or may not acknowledge wrong doing, who may or may not repent, who may or may not change his/her ways. Consider the loving parent and the misbehaving child.

    In this case, we are dealing with the same human being but we are also dealing with two separate identities having different names – and very different life styles and patterns of behavior. This should help make it quite obvious that the act is not the person. And this recognition should help make it clear that forgiveness is the only reasonable option, the only heart-felt loving option, the only Christian option, the only Religious option, the only Spiritual option, the only Humanistic option.

    We are all in this together. Let s/he who has never transgressed cast the first stone.

  7. Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/19/2009 - 12:32 pm.

    If Flynn says so, that ends the matter.

    Maybe we should check with him on the state budget next.

  8. Submitted by Joseph Fleischman on 03/19/2009 - 12:59 pm.

    Enough already. Let Sarah Jane live in peace in the manner she did for many years as a good citizen. Our judicial system did its job and let her live in peace.

  9. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 03/19/2009 - 01:13 pm.

    Wow. There is so much to say here. “[S]he is now living according to the terms of her parole — end of story.” Except that the debate is over WHAT the terms of her parole should be under California law and public policy. There is a legal question as to whether or not she was a legal resident of Minnesota. There is a public policy question as to whether or not she should be returned to the people who have (often unwittingly) enabled her over the years.

    Lets take the “forgiveness” debate to its logical conclusion. Should society have sought jail time for Soliah (I’m not sure she ever legally changed her name)? If so, how much? And if Person A advocates a 10 year sentence, while Person B advocates an 11 year sentence, which one of them is abiding by the Christian dictates of forgiveness? Neither, if we follow the logic of this comment thread. The only person who is truly forgiving, the logic goes, is the one who advocates zero years in prison.

    A parolee is not someone who has paid his/her debt to society. The parolee is in the process of paying it. It would be much harder to object to Soliah living where she wants to if she were truly finished with her sentence.

    We can all agree on the value Megan’s Law and other sex offender registrations for people who have finished their sentences. But these registrations, along with civil confinement laws, raise some very difficult questions about civil liberties and, yes, forgiveness. Maybe a retired member of the clergy does not want to “go there” given recent scandals. But that is where the real issues are.

    Finally, if politicians are grandstanding, should they not be forgiven? After all, true forgiveness supposedly means you should not criticize someone who has done something bad.

  10. Submitted by Greg Lang on 03/19/2009 - 04:35 pm.

    I’ll be the first to concede that Flynn, when active as our archbishop was one of the better people in the Catholic church “recycling” of pedophile priests but he had to be aware of this throughout his career. I had family members in the mortuary industry. Morticians had a loose urban/rural network. Many people were born in rural areas and moved to the city. When they passed away there was often wakes here and then wakes and internment in the rural area where they were born.

    Morticians kept in touch and used this “network” to check up on the new priests. It was haphazard, sometimes the “recycled” priest would be quickly moved out of the parish, other times not. It was also secretive since the morticians feared retaliation from the church if they were know of the source of the information on the “recycled” priest.

    The vast majority of priests were not pedophiles or sexual predators but the Catholic Church increasingly adopted a policy of less information all all transferred priests. It was no great insight of spiritual morality that caused the “recycling” of priests to stop around here earlier. St. Paul Lawyer Jeffery Anderson lived here.

    The Catholic Church had no qualms “blacklisting” a questionable lay employee where charges of “improprieties” were credible. The “recycling” of priests seemed to have more to do with the status of priests than any real spiritual sense of morality. Quite frankly, the Catholic church had an increasing shortage of priests. This apparent “selective morality”, not “weeding out the bad apples” probably backfired with many “good priests” leaving the Catholic Church. Well under five percent of the priests were “bad”.

    With Kathleen Ann Soliah/Sara Jane Olson status also seems to play a role. She flaunted her political connections. Also, before the guilty pleas there was the petition before the Berkeley California City Council asking then Governor Gray Davis to issue a full pardon to Soliah/Olson. That was too much even for Berkeley, who had previously issued a resolution supporting Telletubby “Twinky Winkey”.

    The final Berkeley resolution was extremely watered down but the US constitution allows the citizens to redress their leaders with grievances. Call it a waste of time or “Kabuki Theater” but it was played on both sides.

    On yesterdays Minnpost, I first heard that the lawyer raising Soliah/Olson’s bail was a former head of Department of Human Rights. How can he reconcile his role in this when the Symbionese Liberation Army assassinated the first black leader of a major US school district Marcus Albert Foster? Admittedly, this occurred before Soliah/Olson chose to “assist” Hearst and the Harris’s but Soliah/Olson was the only one that gave them sustained help.

    I have a hypothetical here. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s “gay bashing” was a more common activity that many young males from affluent backgrounds engaged in. Sometimes this resulted in death and the “bashers” usually did not stick around to take a pulse so some or all might not even be aware of a homicide.

    Now let’s say a tip or modern technology reveal this. After the “youthful indisgressions” most went on to lead productive law abiding lives and had politics across the spectrum. As I said “gay bashing” was often a rich kids activity. How would this be handled today? Before and after the sentencing and prison time?

    Like the OJ Simpson case this is totally atypical. After the false release a year ago there was a focus on the release of prisoners without a public announcement or notification of witnesses. I don’t expect Soliah/Olson to seek “retribution” but this is a real fear for many crime victims. The false release a year ago is often cited by crime victim groups because it was a high profile event.

  11. Submitted by Richard Rowan on 03/19/2009 - 05:50 pm.

    I just did a quick scan of the Interstate Compact on adult supervision. It appears the requirement is that she be a resident of the receiving state or have resident family in the receiving state. I think she qualifies to be here based on her family’s residential status, not her own resdidential status.

    I also recall seeing statements she made at her plea hearing where she seemed to express remorse. Regadless, she’s not required to wear sackcloth and ashes, she’s required to abide by the conditions of her parole, which I’m sure she will.

  12. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 03/19/2009 - 06:11 pm.

    I am so tired of the hypocritical so called
    Christian Republicans like Governor Pawlenty and State Rep.Laura Brod,
    maybe it’s time they read their bible.
    Sara Jane Olsen served her time.
    Her probation is suppose to help her re-enter life
    in her community, not be used as a political football.

  13. Submitted by Lois Garbisch on 03/19/2009 - 08:48 pm.

    Forgiveness is about the forgiver, not about whether the recipient of the forgiveness has done. Forgiveness is about letting go so that one isn’t imprisoned by hate or revenge.

  14. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 03/19/2009 - 09:35 pm.

    What did you expect him to say? He’s a priest for cryin’ out loud.

    She was never a legal resident here, she was a fugitive. She has no right to have her parole here.

    How does he know that she’s repentant? Look at Bill Ayers. He changed his life, he’s not still bombing buildings, but he will openly state he hates our way of life and doesn’t regret what he did.

    Mr. Grow, why are you so focused on beating up Minnesotans for not being forgiving? How many columns did you write about how terrible her crimes were. So far its 2-0 as far as I know.

    Seems like you spend an awful lot of time blaming the victim.

  15. Submitted by Greg Lang on 03/20/2009 - 05:09 am.

    Bill Ayers gave and endorsement of support for Soliah/Olson. His wife Bernadine Dohn gave a speech at her “ungagged one” fund raising event.

    The Star Tribune seemed to be totally “clueless” about the Opsahl murder and the Marcus Foster assassination by the SLA. The Star Tribune discussion group was one of our main forums. We repeatedly emailed Star Tribune writers, especially Kurt Brown but apparently this was “irrelevant” while her gourmet cooking was of of high priority.

  16. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/23/2009 - 11:51 am.

    She has not completed her sentence until she has satisfied the requirements of her parole. Then we can say that she has paid her debt to society. This is true regardless of the fact that during the armed bank robbery in Sacramento, she committed murder by kicking an unborn baby and was accomplice to the shotgun murder of a female bank customer. Seven year sentence; does that sound correct to you?

    Regarding forgiveness, I agree with Flynn.

    She has not shown remorse, nor will she. She proclaimed innocence while she raised money in St. Paul to fund her defense.

    To not forgive is to carry an account of a wrong done. This won’t harm her, and it is a burden to carry. I am not willing to carry that burden, so she may have my forgiveness.

Leave a Reply