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.