AUGUSTA — After a bitter floor fight over Bill Beardsley’s handling of sexual abuse allegations, the Maine Senate confirmed the former Husson University president to the state Board of Education.

On a party line vote, the Republican majority voted 19-13 to accept the Ellsworth resident’s nomination over objections from Democrats who questioned whether Beardsley did enough to stop the Rev. Robert Carlson. Carlson, a former chaplain at Husson while Beardsley was president, committed suicide Nov. 13 after learning that he was being investigated by the Maine State Police for sexually abusing minors.

Beardsley was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage after serving as the governor’s commissioner of the former Department of Conservation.

Beardsley’s knowledge of Carlson’s behavior has been questioned ever since he was named in a 104-page police report and interviewed by police. According to the report, a witness told police that Beardsley knew about the abuse and that he knew as early as 2005 that Carlson was a different, darker person than the image he projected in public.

Democrats on Thursday questioned whether Beardsley could have done more to stop Carlson.

“I cannot ignore Dr. Beardsley’s connection to Rev. Carlson,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “The revelations of Rev. Carlson’s abuse were tragic. Yet, in every situation like this, there were always people who knew, people who could have spoken up, people who could have asked questions, actions that could have prevented further abuse.”

Republican senators defended Beardsley, who has said repeatedly that he had no knowledge that Carlson was engaged in illegal activity. Several noted that questions about Beardsley’s handling of the Carlson situation came from a single, unidentified source.

“I am disturbed by the direction this debate has taken,” said Sen. David Hastings, R-Oxford. “As participants in the political process, we expose ourselves to the rough and tumble of political life. This is different. It’s a direct attack on the integrity, honesty and character of the nominee.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the questions from Democrats were based on “double hearsay.”

“We don’t allow hearsay for good reason, let alone double hearsay,” said Katz. “This man is being torn down on the basis of double hearsay. It disrespects fairness, it disrespects the Constitution. This is not Penn State, and I hope this is not Salem, Massachusetts. We are better than that.”

Democrats insisted that they weren’t judging Beardsley without proof that he knew more than he said he did.

“A cloud has developed about what was known and what should have been done by Dr. Beardsley,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond. “As long as that cloud remains, it will cast doubt on the policies and the actions of the State Board of Education.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who has submitted legislation designed to advocate for child abuse victims said it was more important to protect children than institutions.

“This story is not over and we don’t want to look back — like the board of trustees at Penn State — and see that the institution took precedence over the protection of victims of sexual assault,” he said. “Do we want to put our stamp of approval that has yet to be finalized?”

Beardsley reiterated to lawmakers on the Education Committee that he had no knowledge of any illegal activity by Carlson. He told the panel the situation was tragic, but “in my view I dealt with everything appropriately.”

The comments by Democrats provoked a strong rebuke from LePage, who has said repeatedly that he has full confidence in Beardsley.

“Today’s demonstration by Democrats to vote against Bill Beardsley’s nomination is a new all-time low even for them,” LePage said in a statement. “Bill’s experience and life-long career in education is impeccable, and for Democrats and the newspapers to unjustly drag his name into the mud is a disgrace. Democrats clearly do not understand the facts as they relate to the Carlson case and their lack of conscience in trying to sully Bill’s reputation is appalling.”

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