Convicted soul: A priest-perpetrator of child sexual abuse shares his story

Gilbert Gustafson (Shelly Campbell)

Gilbert Gustafson (Shelly Campbell)

by Luke Hansen

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Gilbert Gustafson was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1977, served as an associate priest at St. Mary of the Lake Parish in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, until 1982, pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of a minor in 1983, and served four and a half months in jail and 10 years' probation. Gustafson has admitted to abusing four boys between 1978 and 1982. He was not criminally charged in the other cases.

From 1983 to 2002, Gustafson was not assigned to parish ministry, but he was in residence at two different rectories, and he served as a chaplain for a local monastery of women religious. From 1983 to 1997, Gustafson served in various administrative roles for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. From 1997 to 2002, he worked in the archdiocese's chancery office.

In June 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, commonly known as the Dallas Charter, to address sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Following the charter, Gustafson was permanently removed from active priestly ministry. He could no longer present himself as a priest, use a clerical title, wear clerical attire or celebrate the sacraments.

Gustafson, however, remains in the clerical state. Thus, in accord with the Code of Canon Law, Canon 1350, Paragraph 1, the archdiocese has continuously provided financial support for his basic needs. In 2006, the archdiocese concluded that Gustafson, since he had sexually abused minors, was "permanently and totally disabled" from engaging in his occupation as a priest, and therefore was "entitled to vested retirement benefits" under the Pension Plan for Priests in the Archdiocese. Gustafson also participates in an archdiocesan monitoring program akin to civil probation.

From 2004 to 2014, Gustafson worked for a consulting firm that contracted with Catholic parishes and other non-profit groups to provide services like strategic planning, executive coaching and human resource utilization. Today he continues to do consulting work with non-profits, including some Catholic institutions (but not parishes), as a consultant in the area of leadership development. Gustafson said he has never had any contact with children in his consulting work.

Since 2012, Gustafson has collaborated with Susan Pavlak on the project Uncommon Conversation, which seeks healing and reconciliation among survivors, perpetrators and others involved in child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In a separate interview, Pavlak describes being sexually abused by her high school religion teacher, a former nun. This interview with Gustafson, edited for length and clarity, took place in West St. Paul, Minnesota.

Hansen: What was your early experience of the church?

Gustafson: I was born in 1951 — the youngest of four children — and grew up in a classic middle class family of the 1950s. Mom and Dad were very engaged in our parish. I always liked church. It was a wonderful, warm, safe environment. The nuns and priests were an extension of my family. Church became my second family and still is family.

I started being an altar boy at about age 9. In junior high, when I could serve during the Triduum, I was just taken by it. I felt moved inside.

In my era, almost every little boy wanted to be a priest at some point. It never went away for me. I went to high school seminary and spent my adolescence there.

How was sexuality addressed in the seminary?

In high school, as typical of the era, we had only a little sex education. Our rector, however, was very forward-thinking. He wanted us to experience the real world, so he encouraged us to date. He said, "I want you to meet girls. Half the church is women. You have got to understand women."

In college seminary, I don't remember sexuality being addressed. But again, there was no prohibition of dating.

In major seminary, there was no dating. Part of the passageway from the college seminary to the major seminary was: "Are you really ready to embrace celibacy?" I concluded: "Yes."

I also recall a seminar about boundaries. In one scenario a teenage girl comes to you for pastoral counseling and wants a hug. A hug wasn't prohibited, but we were told to be very careful about how things are perceived and understood.

There wasn't a lot in my formation dealing with sexuality, but that was between 1965 and 1977. Now we deal with sexuality much differently. 

When you were ordained, what was your experience of sexual attraction?

Let me back up a little bit. When I was 6 years old, I was sexually abused by a neighborhood boy who was about three years older than me. I didn't understand it as sexual abuse for many, many years — long after I was ordained and convicted of sexual abuse. I thought it was just sexual exploration, but it imprinted on me a fusion of sexuality and punishment. We pulled our pants off and spanked each other. It had a sexual overtone and was linked to punishment. This linkage stayed with me in fantasy and later acting out. I never spanked my victims, but it was in my framework.

In therapy, when I look back on the whole arc of my sexual development, I was fantasizing versions of sexualized punishment from when I was very young — 7, 8, 9 years old. And I kept it all within me. The attraction to boys started early, and I believe it started from my experience of abuse.

In my senior year of college, 13- or 14-year-old kids delivered newspapers to the college dorm. When they collected their money, I can remember thinking that they were cute.

I had just enough psychology to be dangerous, so I thought I was experiencing a latent homosexuality — in the terminology of the day. But then, all of a sudden, I realized I am getting older, 21 years old, and I still think that a 13-year-old looks very attractive. That was my first awareness that this was different. 

By the time I was ordained, that attraction hadn't changed. I had not acted on it, but it was certainly in my fantasy life. It was a deep, dark secret that — aside from confession — I would have never admitted to anyone.

In seminary I had sexual experiences with age-appropriate persons — male and female. I enjoyed having girlfriends, and it involved some sexual exploration. In terms of sexual orientation, however, I knew I was primarily attracted to these young adolescent boys, just as they were entering puberty. I was ashamed of it. Later in therapy, I came to understand that my sexuality was so fused with shame and self-loathing that it truncated any normal development of sexual attraction. It locked up.

What happened in your first priestly assignment?

In June 1977, I was assigned to a parish of about a thousand families. Two and a half weeks later, the pastor had a very serious heart attack. I was 26 years old, brand new to ministry and pretty much there by myself. I was trying to learn how to be a priest and, at the same time, cover the work of two priests. I had a pattern of exhaustion. I'd start my day with 8 o'clock Mass, and my last appointment finished at 10 or 11 o'clock at night.

I was depleting myself but loving the work, which is part of the problem. I loved preaching; I loved presiding at Eucharist. I developed a sense of entitlement: I give and give and give. I work so hard. I do so much. I need something for me. So I am going to take something for me. What I took was acting out: I enacted in real life the fantasies that had been in me for years about sex with young teenage boys.

At some point during that first year, I crossed the line and engaged in inappropriate touch. The behavior ranged from touching a boy's genital area, over clothing, or rubbing against him, clothing on, to directly touching his genital area. The most invasive behavior was oral sex, which happened on a couple of occasions. I had one of the boys perform oral sex on me on the porch while his family was inside their house. Touching outside of clothing was more frequent. There was a sense of almost hiding it from myself and them — as if they would not have understood that rubbing my hand across their groin area was an invasive, abusive act. It was crazy-thinking. I knew it wasn't right.

Read the complete series: 

Why did the abuse start then? A friend of mine, a counselor and former minister who has worked in the area of sexual misconduct, calls it "ordination as shame reduction strategy." As a seminarian, I did youth work and had access to kids. I think part of the reason I didn't act out on my sexual attraction is because I feared that I wouldn't get ordained. The desire to get ordained functioned as a kind of a protection or a barrier to crossing the line into actual behavior.

Within months after ordination, however, I was one depleted soul — psychologically, spiritually and physically. I was tired and exhausted. This was part of the setup for why I crossed the line. It doesn't excuse it.

You said you knew it was wrong, but what was your understanding of its seriousness?

I did not realize how much damage I was causing. Since I imagined much of my behavior as covert, I thought they wouldn't even notice it was happening. When the touch was more explicit, then I couldn't hold that excuse together, and I felt enormous amounts of shame. I despised myself. I had no pretense that I was teaching them about sexuality or that it was good for them. I may not have known how much damage it was doing, but I knew completely that it was wrong, and I was horribly ashamed.

Once I went down the road of acting out what had been fantasy, I had a feeling that I couldn't stop. I wanted to stop, but couldn't. Psychologists refer to it as an obsessive compulsive disorder. I think that's fair language. That's how it felt to me. I compulsively sought to meet my needs through this dark sexuality.

How many victims were involved, how old were they, and for how long did the abuse continue?

I know of four victims I most certainly sexually abused. The abuse started in 1978 and concluded in 1982, a four-year period. The boys ranged in age from about 10 to 15.

You said that you "know of" four victims. Could there potentially be more victims? 

There is always that possibility. I'm not omniscient. It is not about hiding things, but I have legal vulnerabilities. I don't know if there are more victims. I do know the most serious behavior led to my criminal conviction in 1983, and I have not reoffended since then.

In 1998, Fr. Michael Kennedy informed Bishop Robert Carlson that you had a problem of "inappropriate sexual acting out" with late-adolescent women, and in a sworn deposition in 2004, Kennedy said you had "eight or nine" victims, including three girls. Also in 2004, Fr. Kevin McDonough, then an archdiocesan official, said in a deposition that you had abused between four and 15 victims.

It is possible that they received reports that I am not aware of. All I can tell you is what I know.

In 2005, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis settled a lawsuit with Anne Bonse, who said that you abused her on multiple occasions between 1977 and 1982, when she was between the ages of 5 and 10.

I did not abuse her, and I made that clear in the settlement.

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Did you abuse any girls?

No. My four victims were boys.

What ultimately stopped the abuse? 

In 1982, when I finished at the parish and received a new assignment that required additional education, my primary victim wrote a letter in which he identified the sexually abusive behavior. His parents intercepted the letter and took it to the archdiocese. In August 1982, I was called in to meet with the vicar general and a chancellor. They presented the letter to me. After I read it, they asked, "Well, what do you have to say?"

You know, there was this nanosecond in which I assessed: "Can I deny it and get away with it?" I thought: "I think I can." Just two weeks after I was ordained, I ran a parish, and now I was scheduled to go away for a diocesan-level job. I had proven a lot of ability. I had a lot of credibility, and this was a 15-year-old kid. I was 31.

I believe the Holy Spirit intervened. Really, I do. I looked up and said, "Well it's true." It was the enormous moment of change in my life. It was a grace.

My sense is that they didn't know what to do next. I'm not sure if they would have believed me, but I think they expected me to deny it. But I immediately said, "It is true." That was the first intervention.

I had shared the abuse of the boys in confession, but my confessor was bound by the seal. In retrospect, I wish he had encouraged me to go to a therapist or in some way intervened on the behavior. Some years later I asked him about it, and he responded that he was afraid if he pushed me, I would back away and have nobody to talk to. It's a pastoral assessment, right? And I think it's a fair one. If he had said to me in 1979 or 1980 that I needed to turn myself into the police, I don't know if I could have done it.

After the intervention, I continued with the plan to go back to school, but the archdiocese also lined me up with a therapist. The abuse wasn't ignored. They did not tell me to simply pray harder and not do it again. Resources were made available to me to try to uncover why I was attracted to and abusing boys.

In March 1983, the counselor of my primary victim's family informed the police about the sexual abuse. I met with the police and admitted it. The next month I pleaded guilty to criminal sexual misconduct in the third degree, a felony, for the abuse of that boy. The original sentence was 18 months in state prison. Later the court changed the sentence, and I served four and a half months in the county jail, plus 10 years of supervised probation.

That intervention stopped the abuse. The behavior got out of the realm of being a secret. It was brought into public light and scrutiny.

Related: 'Uncommon conversation' on sex abuse falls silent​ (July 18, 2017)

What were the consequences for your priestly life?

Even before I was convicted, I resigned the diocesan position I was going to take: director of continuing education for priests.

While I was in jail, I was able to get work release. I served as the human resource coordinator for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and reported directly to the executive director. When I finished my jail time, I was meeting with a local therapist, and Catholic Charities wanted me to stay on. I worked there for 14 years.

I was not allowed to do basic priestly work or help out at parishes. I knew the most important part of my priesthood was presiding at Eucharist and preaching, so I asked if I could minister in a non-parish situation. Eventually a monastery of women religious needed a regular presider. I served there for 18-and-a-half years, until 2002, when I was removed from active priestly ministry by the Dallas Charter.

Have you been laicized?

In 2002 I made the choice to remain in the clerical state, even though I know I will never again be in active priestly ministry. It just won't happen.

It is ironic: When I was ordained, I laughed at the language of "ontological change." But in reality, it's true. Being a priest is part of my DNA. When I started as a priest, I felt it was simply a role I played for the community, and I loved doing it. Many years later, 37 years later, I realize that it became part of the fabric of who I am.

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Do you see these consequences — jail time and the removal from active ministry — as sufficient or fair in light of the abuse that you perpetrated?

I have come to see consequences as my best friends. Without the consequences I would never have changed. At one point I remember thinking: "Oh dear God, what if the criminal law gets involved? What if I am convicted of a crime? Oh my God, what if I went to jail? Oh my God, what if it became known publicly?" Fear and shame made me think it would be the end of who I am. In reality, quite the opposite happened: The consequences freed me. I wouldn't trade any of them: the jail time, the publicity, the restrictions in ministry. These consequences have done great good. They have formed my spirituality. I had to face who I really was and see God.

There were times, however, when I pushed against the consequences. I initially thought the Dallas Charter was unfair. At that point I had 20 years of recovery, and there was a way I could function as a priest while the community remained safe. So I was hurt and angry about the decision of the U.S. bishops.

Today I acknowledge: If I had not abused those boys from 1978 to 1982, then this consequence wouldn't have happened. I'm not blaming anybody else. There are always consequences to behaviors, and they are almost all painful in the near term. But over the long haul, they're for the good. So I am at peace with them.

Have you had contact with any of your victims after the abuse stopped?

I had contact with two of the boys: In one case, by a phone conversation and a note; and in another case, a face-to-face conversation.

I've never sought contact with the other two victims. I have learned from victims' advocates that seeking out victims — even to make amends and express my sorrow — could very likely result in re-victimization. So I wouldn't do that. If they ever contacted me, I would be very happy to talk with them, in whatever way would be safe and appropriate. My contact with victims has been limited, but what did happen was a great grace.

What happened in the face-to-face meeting?

He said he was aware that I had acknowledged what I had done and that I seemed to be doing what I could to ensure that I would never abuse again. I think that's what allowed him to talk with me. It was a very, very powerful conversation for me. I thank God to this day for his courage, his willingness to have that conversation. It was amazing.

After the Dallas Charter, all sexual abuse cases got reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So my case was eventually sent to them, and what came back was the requirement that I say a private Mass, a solitary Mass, once a week, each Friday, for the victims of sexual abuse by clergy, as part of my life of prayer and penance. So I say that Mass and in addition I pray every day for the healing of my victims, all victims and the church.

Your primary victim, as a young adult, contracted HIV and died of AIDS. Do you feel responsible for his death?

The media, thankfully, is very clear that I did not transmit HIV to him. I am not an HIV carrier.

What I know is that I caused that young man grave harm by my sexual abuse of him when he was an early adolescent. From what I have heard in the media from his parents, in subsequent years his life spiraled out of control, in relation to sexual behavior and drug use. My abuse of him was a major factor that caused him to spiral. In that sense I bear responsibility for the damage done to his life that eventually led to behavior that resulted in his contracting HIV and dying of AIDS.

I don't think it's possible to bear all of the responsibility, but I certainly bear responsibility.

How do you stand before God with that responsibility on your conscience?

In the Liturgy of the Hours, every Friday in morning prayer, we say Psalm 51. In jail, it jumped out at me: "My offenses truly I know them; my sin is always before me." The psalm also speaks of restoration: "Give me again the joy of your help, with a spirit of fervor sustain me, that I may teach transgressors your ways and sinners may return to you." In a lot of ways the psalm sums up my relationship with God.

I still come to God with a burden of shame. Shame is not of God. It is rooted in self-hatred, and its intent is to destroy us. Thus it's from the Evil One. When I acknowledge my sin, I need to stay in authentic guilt, which is rooted in a profound sorrow.

My therapist called it penthos. It means authentic sorrow for the harm I have caused, a sorrow that allows me to heal, to be free, to minister. If I didn't have it, I would be locked into blaming others: my abuser, the dysfunctions of my family, the dysfunctions of my church, overwork, blah, blah, blah. But penthos simply says, "I am sorry for the harm I have caused." I try to come to God out of that sorrow.

Amid the intensity of the media coverage, my spiritual director recently asked me, "Do you come to prayer expecting God to treat you like the newspaper does, or some other way?" I'd like to be able to laugh and say, "God is not the newspaper." But part of me believes that God looks at me in a shaming way and says, "You piece of shit. You're an awful child abuser."

The media portrays me in that way. It doesn't talk about 30 years of recovery. It doesn't talk about any good I have done. I'm just one thing. I have to be very careful; it is very easy to see myself in that one dimension. Even after years of working on self-hatred, I am still vulnerable to shame. It doesn't dominate, but I am vulnerable to it.

I believe that God calls me his child, and says, "I know all you've done. I know the harm and the good." I know I have done good for people. After the Dallas Charter, several sisters in the monastery where I served wrote to the archbishop. Those letters were an extraordinary affirmation, for which I am grateful.

A huge turning point in my relationship with God happened on an eight-day retreat in 1979. The director, a Jesuit, suggested that I have a dialogue with God. I could say whatever I wanted to God, but God only had one response: "I made you. You are good."

In the middle of the night, I got up and started walking the river near the retreat house. I had to face what I was doing. At this point I was already sexually abusing boys. I asked, "How can you love me? I am sexually abusing your children." God responded, "I made you. You are good." I poured out venom against myself, but God constantly responded, "I still love you. Yes, yes, I still love you."

That is how I sit with God. On my bad days, I sit in my stink of shame and feel like nobody could love me, including God. On better days, I hear God saying, "I do love you. I still love you." It's a work in progress.

What are the major components of your 30 years of recovery?

I have thought a lot about it. In 2002, with the help of my therapist, I distilled the process of recovery, and I gave a document to then Archbishop Harry Flynn before he traveled to Dallas for the bishops' meeting.

There are four significant dimensions to recovery. Without them, recovery is not at all complete, even though recovery is obviously ongoing. One keeps recovering; one doesn't recover. (It's like addiction. You're always going to be an alcoholic, but you're a recovering alcoholic.) I will always be attracted to boys, ages 11 to 15, but I can be in recovery.

The first component is external accountability. In my case it happened when the archdiocese confronted me with the letter from my victim. It happened when criminal authorities convicted me and enforced prohibitions on my behavior. It happened with media attention. External accountability is absolutely critical. As I said earlier, I don't think I would have stopped the abuse without it. If a person has a fixed attraction and true compulsion, then I don't know how the person can stop without external accountability.

The second part is internal responsibility. I have to own the fact that this destructive behavior is my fault. Yes, I was abused, and it set things in motion. Yes, I lacked ability in communicating feelings and dealing with anger. But I did what I did, and I must be held responsible. My victims were not responsible. The responsibility is all on me. I was in the position of power. I was the one who was active. Nobody else is to blame. It's great to learn about what caused it — the third phase — but until I say, "I stand responsible for my behavior," I don't think recovery can happen.

The third component is therapy or internal change, which can take years. In my case, I had to learn about how anger and sexuality had fused, and I had to undo it. My extraordinarily talented therapist had to get down to the roots — through a lot of imaginative work and deep reflection and regular meetings — and unlatch that. A big part of it was learning about penthos: how to be sad about what I did, rather than angry at myself; and how to feel authentic guilt, rather than destructive shame. It took time.

The fourth phase is the fruit. It is about incorporating what I have learned and living a transformed life: to be more truly who I am, to live out of my goodness, and to be of service to others. It is like the last part of the 12 steps. The program isn't about your recovery alone; it is also about taking the gift into the world. Until that happens, there's a huge element missing in the recovery process.

Is there an element of risk when you're around children today?

I don't believe I would ever act out again. I have 30-plus years of recovery. Over 25 years ago, my therapist gave a report on my progress in which he said he felt I had detached my sexuality from anger and shame, so he didn't see a lot of risk.

That being said, I still have the attraction, so I have to be very careful about what I do when I am in proximity to children.

I pretty much order my life to not have proximity to children. Thankfully I live alone. But, you know, children are in the world. I might, for example, see a kid in the grocery store. I can't remove all children from my life. If I see a very attractive teenage boy, what do I do? I have to make sure my attention doesn't go to him. I have protocols about how I navigate the world.

I am almost always in the company of people who know my story. If I were to engage in grooming behavior, they would say, "What the hell are you doing?" This kind of external accountability is very helpful.

I have to manage it. I do a good job of it — I have not repeated the abuse — but I have to manage it. It is not a given.

How have you attempted to make amends? Can you make amends?

Yes, yes, yes. The first and most important amend is my recovery. I must do all that I can to ensure that I never abuse another child. That's my first amend to the children I sexually abused as well as the others I harmed: the victims' families, friends and the church.

In a 12-step program they say: Make amends, except where to do so would cause harm. That is why I cannot, without their invitation, make a direct amend to one of my victims. It would risk doing harm. Two of my victims opened the doorway for me, and it was a great grace to say I am sorry and to make amends to them.

Another amend has involved starting support groups for clergy dealing with sexual issues. I have also had the great honor to be invited to take part in conferences and trainings about sexual abuse in the church. I am not an academic or researcher about sexual abuse, but I have learned a lot from my experience and recovery. At these events, I have stood up, told my story and took responsibility.

In 1989, at the first event in which I took part, a young man in his 20s told a heart-wrenching story about having been abused by an Episcopalian priest. I was to speak immediately after him. I thought: "Oh Christ, here I am: the perpetrator." I started my speech by telling him it was never his fault. His perpetrator was responsible, just as I am responsible for the harm I caused my victims. Then I told the basics of my story and what I had learned about recovery.

When I finished and walked off the stage, he came up to me, thanked me for what I said, and he asked if it would be OK if he gave me a hug. I said, "Yes."

Even though he wasn't my victim, I could make amends by offering my insights on taking responsibility to somebody else's victim. And whatever I contributed to that conference and other trainings, it was another way of making amends.

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Based on your experience, what are some of the lessons for the church today?

Church leaders, particularly the bishops, should consider the same four steps of recovery that I have experienced.

First, they must submit to external accountability. In the case of an accusation of abuse, the requirement to immediately contact the police — and submit everything to them — is important. Civil lawsuits also hold them accountable and judge them in a very public way. It is painful, but it is critical for them to behave in a new way. It's very humiliating, but the church must be humiliated if it is to become authentically humble.

Second, just like the offender, church leaders must say, "We are responsible." They must accept it as absolutely true and embrace whatever consequences flow from it. Church needs to be church and not a corporation. To the degree that we protect our assets in the legal system, and in any way do additional harm to the victim, we've stopped being church. The call of church is to pastor, be a good shepherd, to care for the sheep. The church has to be church.

The third realm is internal change. As I did in therapy, the church needs to examine what's underneath our behavior. I had to learn about patriarchal models of power, clericalism, elitism and entitlement. In the leadership and institutional life of the church, what's really driving us? Can we honestly say that every decision we make is to care for souls, or are we building financial assets and legal bulwarks?

If, over time, the church is in that process of change, then it can live as a transformed institution in the world. It can become a model for dealing with sexual abuse — and perhaps a catalyst for our society to look at sexual abuse. I mean: For the love of God, what are the stats? It's happening in families, extended families, schools, associations, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCAs, camps, among police. All of it. It's endemic in our society.

Nobody chooses the humiliation forced by external accountability. But once you accept it as a gift and make the change you really need to make, you become a witness to the world. Isn't that what the church is called to be? As an institution, we can bring healing and salvation to the world. For alcoholics, the most important work is to another alcoholic, right? The church as an abusive institution could be a transformative agent against abusive behavior in society.

[Jesuit Fr. Luke Hansen assisted with sacramental ministry at the Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee. In October, he will begin a Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.]

Note: Because of the sensitive nature of this story’s subject matter, NCR is not allowing comments on this page. For more explanation, see editor Dennis Coday's comments here.

A version of this story appeared in the July 28-August 10, 2017 print issue under the headline: Priest-perpetrator shares his story.

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