Note to readers about content this week

by Dennis Coday

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On the NCR website this week, we will run a series of stories that will challenge our readers to look at the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by clergy from several different viewpoints: from the perspective of a victim/survivor, from the perspective of a convicted offender, from the perspective of a family member of a victim, and from the perspective of professional advocates and watchdogs.

The stories will make some people uncomfortable and others angry. It will be difficult reading, but my hope — my belief — is that it will make us confront a profound question about clergy sex abuse and the Catholic Church, namely, how do we as church, as a community of believers, bring healing to our wounded body? What cooperative acts of justice and mercy must we take as a community of believers to move forward in our journey of faith?

Questions will be raised, but not all will be answered. 

Monday, our companion website Global Sisters Report sets us out on this journey with the story of Dominican Sr. Sally Butler, who as a pastoral associate in a Brooklyn parish in the 1970s found herself raising a 12-year-old boy after his mother died. Twenty years later, she learned that while in her care, the boy was molested by a priest. That revelation turned her into an advocate for abuse survivors, but, she says, it nearly cost her her faith. Read the story in full here: "Sister finds that faith sustains when institutions fail."

Wednesday and Thursday, we will run extensive interviews with Gilbert Gustafson and Susan Pavlak. Pavlak, a lifelong resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, was sexually abused by her high school religion teacher, a former nun, in the 1970s. She recounts her struggle to come into, as she describes it, "right relationship," overcoming alcoholism and trauma from the abuse. Read the full interview here: " 'All of us together': Sex abuse survivor seeks healing within the church." Gustafson is a priest of the St. Paul Minneapolis Archdiocese who was convicted of molesting a teenage boy in 1983.  He served a jail sentence and years of probation. He also continued to serve as a priest on restricted ministry, holding various administrative jobs until 2002 when he was removed from public ministry. Over the last 30 years, he has done extensive personal work on recovery and, he says, has not offended since his conviction. Read his interview here: Convicted soul: A priest-perpetrator of child sexual abuse shares his story

Gustafson and Pavlak met each other about 10 years ago. After several years learning to trust each other, they agreed to work together on programs that they hoped would bring healing to victims, abusers and the wider church community. Their main contention, in Pavlak's words, is that "a person, however broken, doesn't fall outside of the love of God and the love and care of the community.  ... We have to find a way to be safe together — that is my responsibility, not only to the kids and vulnerable people but also to the perpetrator."

The interviews with Pavlak and Gustafson were conducted 2015 by Jesuit Fr. Luke Hansen. He had some trouble finding an outlet to publish the interviews and offered them to NCR last year. We agreed to run the interviews, but didn't feel we could do that without providing readers with some context and background to the issues their stories raise.

The partnership between Pavlak and Gustafson was not without controversy, especially since this was happening when the Minnesota archdiocese was embroiled in legal fights with the local district attorney and in bankruptcy proceedings. This coincided, too, with the high profile resignations of St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt and his auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché. It was a time of turmoil for the local church that ripped open old wounds and exposed new cases of abuse.

To give you a full context of all this time and the issues, we will publish a story by NCR staff Brian Roewe on Tuesday. " 'Uncommon conversation' on sex abuse falls silent" is meant as a set-up to the interviews with Gustafson and Pavlak.

A note on comments

As I mentioned, these stories raise tough questions that many will want to debate. At the same time, a few individuals have taken extraordinary risks by being public with their stories and their ideas. The NCR staff feel some responsibility for these individuals who have made themselves vulnerable.

Therefore, we have decided to restrict our normal commenting policies. No comments will be allowed on the individual story pages.

Comments will be allowed on this page, and we ask you to return to this page after reading the other stories if you want to comment. A link is provided at the bottom of each story and interview.

Please be aware, however, that all comments on this page will have to be approved by an NCR staff member before they are visible to the public. We know that this will slow down the pace of commenting — that actually is one of our goals — and it will to some extent limit the commenting that is done. We feel that these are good tradeoffs to protect people in these stories from attack. 

[Dennis Coday is editor of NCR.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 28-August 10, 2017 print issue under the headline: Perspectives on abuse.

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