'All of us together': Sex abuse survivor seeks healing within the church

Susan Pavlak (Shelly Campbell)

West St. Paul, Minn. — In this interview, Susan Pavlak, a lifelong resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, describes being sexually abused by her high school religion teacher, a former nun, beginning in 1970. The abuse, according to Pavlak, happened on several occasions over four years. The alleged perpetrator, whom Pavlak has chosen not to identify by name in this interview, has never been charged in a criminal court; and Pavlak has never sought damages from any party in a civil court.

Pavlak has sought reconciliation and restitution outside of the legal system. In 2001, in the presence of an official of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Pavlak met with the person she said abused her, she explained, in order to "restore right relationship with her." In 2002, Pavlak utilized a non-adversarial process to settle with the archdiocese, which agreed to reimburse her high school tuition.

Pavlak, a retired operations manager, has collaborated with Gilbert Gustafson, a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, on the project Uncommon Conversation, which seeks healing and reconciliation among survivors, perpetrators and others involved in child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Gustafson was ordained a priest in 1977, pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of a minor in 1983, served four and a half months in jail, and was permanently removed from active priestly ministry in 2002. He talks about the abuse he perpetrated and his work in recovery​ in a separate interview on NCR. This interview with Pavlak, edited for length and clarity, took place in West St. Paul, Minnesota.

NCR: What was your early experience as a Catholic?

Pavlak: My family's life was centered on faith, family and security. My grandfather and father were police officers, and my father ended his career as the federal marshal for the district of Minnesota.

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My family was very involved in parish life. My folks chaired the capital campaign for our parish.

I attended Catholic grade school and high school. My experience was pretty uniformly good, except for the occasional evil nun. In my day, you could still get hit in Catholic school. We had Mass every day. Today I go to Mass every week, and I am an active member of my community.

What happened during your junior year of high school?

The student council leaders were asked to arrive a week or two before school started and give a little speech for the incoming faculty. Afterward a teacher came up to me and introduced herself as a religion teacher and student council liaison. I also learned from her that she recently left a religious order and was living in community with two former sisters and a sister on leave. That was my first introduction to my perpetrator.

I had just turned 16. She was, I believe, 25.

She began seeking me out, asking me to come to lunch with her, staying after school, giving me a ride home occasionally. I now recognize, as a 60-year-old, I was being groomed, cut out of the herd. She told me inappropriate details about her personal life. I didn't understand what she was saying.

On our junior retreat, she asked me to go for walks with her. She showed me where her father used to have a restaurant. During one of the quiet periods, she came and lay down with me in a private room. I was uncomfortable but also flattered: I entertained — like all Catholic girls in my day — the idea of being a nun.

As these behaviors continued, I tested limits with my family. In order to be with her, I needed to be less truthful with them. I couldn't figure out which authority I was supposed to listen to. I ended up agreeing to have dinner with her. She talked about poetry — I'm crazy about poetry. She talked a lot about God — I'm kind of crazy about God, too. She bought me an e.e. cummings book.

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After supper at a restaurant we got into her car, and she asked me if we were friends. I said, "Yeah, I guess so." I didn't have a concept for adult friends, but I said, "Yeah." She asked, "Can friends do anything with friends?" I said, "Yeah, I think so." She then lay on top of me and started kissing me. My brain was on fire. I didn't know what to do. She took me to her place, where she was living with the other women, and had sex with me. She dropped me at home in the morning. I didn't go to school that day.

She had told my parents that I needed counseling, which made it possible for her to keep me overnight. I was already in a double bind. She set herself up as the good guy. I had been cut out from the herd, so my friends were gone. Grooming cuts those parachute strings, one at a time. I sure as hell couldn't tell my parents. She said I couldn't; otherwise she would be in trouble. Now I was in a position of protecting her. I thought it was my fault. I thought, "If I hadn't done this, or given the wrong impression. …"

I didn't know what to do, so I bought a bus ticket and ran away to Omaha. I didn't even know anyone there, and I was still wearing my blue plaid skirt and blazer, white shirt and black loafers. I told a friend at home, and she told my perpetrator, who then picked me up in Omaha and brought me home. At that point I was thinking, "I'm never going to get out of this." She brought me to her home, and again had sex with me. That night I cut my wrist in her bathroom, with her razor. [Pause] Almost 45 years later, I can still feel it in my body. It's scary.

She bandaged me up and dropped me home. My folks took me to the psych ward at St. Joseph's Hospital. I was there for most of the fall and into the winter. I came home for Christmas. That year I missed 61 days of school. My family was terrified.

When I finally returned to school after the Christmas break, she was no longer working there. She came to my family's home and explained to me that she had decided to move on. I wonder if that's true, but I don't have any way of knowing. No one ever told me — I was the kid. I think they got rid of her. She went to teach at another Catholic school.

How long did the abuse last?

She kept finding me for another four years. There were at least another five occurrences of what I now know as assault. I couldn't keep her away. During my three months in the hospital, nobody was allowed to visit me except my folks. But my perpetrator got in, ostensibly to visit someone else. She showed up with her former religious superior who, in my view, was her perpetrator. They had a relationship while they were in the order.

I told myself that I had gotten myself into this, and I just had to endure.

I transferred to a different high school for my senior year. I was alienated from everything. I didn't feel safe with anyone. If I told my family about the abuse, I knew I'd go crazier, and I'd hurt them too. Two weeks into the school year, my father fell out of a tree and broke his back. We didn't know if he was going to live. He was in the hospital for a few months. There was real chaos in my family for a very long time. There was no one I could fruitfully tell, I thought, without ungluing even more.

After high school, I tried to go to school at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, but it didn't work very well. I learned to drink. Alcohol helps when you are a mess. It takes you away from the pain. It made me feel not so hunted and not so crazy. I think I only stayed two quarters.

After I left school, I worked sporadically and drank, and had another stay in a psych ward for a couple of weeks.

In 1975, I finally went away to the University of Minnesota, Morris. That fall, my perpetrator called me and said she wanted to come and visit me. I said no. My "no" had been disabled from age 16 until that moment. That's when it ended. I finally told another person — a guidance counselor at the school — about what had happened. I was 21.

What were some of the other effects of the abuse?

Being in high school is already like dancing on ice, backwards, on rollerblades, with a grizzly bear. It is very difficult. You are trying to figure out who you are. My identity was simply smashed for the gratification of another person for whom I had felt affection, care and trust. For many years I was taught that Catholic teachers, nuns and priests are trustworthy, safe people. That's why my parents made sacrifices to send us to Catholic school.

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At the time I didn't know that my face had been erased by my perpetrator. A perpetrator isn't interested in you. They are interested in securing whatever they're after. They use you as an object. They have to make you believe that they are interested in you. It is a lot easier with a kid than an adult.

I almost didn't live through the abuse. It scrambled everything. It disabled my sense of self. It took away my "no." Like other abuse victims, I had a certain amount of learned helplessness. I didn't have the resources to access the help I needed. As a 60-year-old I can sit here and critique that 16-year-old, but I could not have spoken a word earlier than I did.

I have profound sorrow for that time. I feel sad for the young woman I was. I feel sorrow for my family. They were terrified but kept me safe.

I am very resilient. I am a mess sometimes, but I lived through some very difficult times and learned how to take care of myself.

What has made it possible to heal?

A significant investment in therapy. Several treatments for alcoholism. Lots of grace, which allowed me to stay alive. Unconditional support, love and care from my family, even when they didn't like me.

Until I could say it out loud and really call it what it was, I carried the shame of my perpetrator, the shame of the Catholic Church, the shame and sorrow I had internalized, the societal shame a lot of women carry about sex. There were bits and pieces of healing along the way, but I was about 40 before everything really started to come together. When I could finally tell myself the truth about what happened, then I could really start to heal at another level, which did not happen until after my father died in 1994. [Whispers] I never told my father. I didn't want his heart to be broken.

It is an ongoing process. Now I am in pretty good shape. The abuse has long-lasting effects, but so do a lot of other things: poverty, physical abuse, rape, neglect, all kinds of things. I don't privilege my suffering. My family suffered. My church community suffered. In the church I believe these tremendous secrets that run below the tectonic plates are now coming up to be healed. I have a wonderful life. I am filled with joy. I have scars, but so do you. Perpetrators have scars. Everyone does. I don't privilege mine. I expect there will be more healing. I am good at it now, right?

Why did you seek a meeting with your perpetrator?

I wanted to restore right relationship with her. I had to say, "This is what happened, this is my experience of it, this is what my life was like, and this is the effect your behavior had on me." I experienced emancipation, accountability, a refusal to be helpless — and a refusal to be afraid without also walking through the fear.

I had been turning the dials over the years, unhooking myself from the responsibility I felt for what happened. Up until that time, I pretty much told myself all of the chaos that was unleashed was my fault. In reality, this was a Bernie Madoff-level fraud. It touched my religious life. It touched my family life. It touched my sense of self and my belief that I could make good decisions. It was like a tsunami.

What happened at the meeting?

The Rev. Kevin McDonough, then vicar general of the archdiocese, helped to set up the meeting for Dec. 22, 2001, a Saturday morning. We agreed that each of us could bring someone with us, but not a lawyer. I was not interested in lawyering. I was interested in restoring relationship and accountability. I brought a longtime friend to the meeting. My perpetrator came alone. It was about the same day I was released from St. Joseph's Hospital all those years earlier. Carl Jung would call it synchronicity. Catholics call it the Holy Spirit, right?

I told my story. [Pause] And she never apologized.

I sweat and shook through the whole thing, but I damn well did it. I stood by myself. I started making her the right size: a small person who no longer had any power over me.

I asked for accountability for what she had done to me. I asked her to consider what that meant, and to respond by the Feast of the Epiphany because, you know, I'm a Catholic girl. I carry in my body a sacramental sense of being Catholic. I thought, "We are Catholic together." We know how to make things right between us. We have what we need. We have confession, and the Gospel instruction: "Go first to the person." Well, I was doing it.

She agreed to consider what accountability meant for her, but she never responded. Later Kevin told me that she said to him that she and her friends thought I should "just get over it."

How did your perpetrator respond in the meeting?

She listened. She was fairly quiet. She wasn't belligerent. I think she was just getting through it. My sense is that it was not really touching her.

At the end I got one of those phony-baloney Bill Clinton apologies. She said, "Well, I'm sorry that you feel that way." She did not say, "I am sorry for what I did. I understand that you are hurt." Even when you don't mean to hurt someone, you have to say, "I see you are hurt. My intention was not to be hurtful."

She didn't dispute anything.

You wanted her to be accountable. What do you mean?

I wanted her to take responsibility for her behavior and, as we say in my family, "cop to it." I am not in charge of her behavior, but I wanted some assurance that it wouldn't happen to another kid. There is rarely only one victim. I had some concern about whether she had become a safer person.

For restitution I would have proposed what my folks spent out of pocket on my hospitalization, about $20,000, which we did not have laying around in my day. But I would have worked with whatever she brought to me. I just thought my job was to put that stake in the ground. Very naively I thought that once you are caught, you admit it. Not so.

I am not in the punishment business. I would be way too Old Testament. Really. It is a good thing that Christ came in the person of Jesus. For a few years I was going down the road of revenge. I was tempted by that. There is a period of time when you realize what has been taken from you, and you have to be angry in order to get through. But if I went down that road, I wouldn't be the person I want to be. I had already had enough of me taken, so why would I give the rest to her? But accountability is terribly important for us to be safe together.

What is the role of forgiveness? Do you forgive her?

Yes. I told her I forgave her. Forgiveness is freedom for me.

I understand forgiveness as a process, not an event, but the anger doesn't come up that often anymore. Forgiveness keeps me from being yoked to that sorrow forever. It allows me to be of use in my family and the world. What good am I if I am filled with bitterness and hooked to someone who is arguably in worse shape than me?

My mother used to say that when something terrible happens between two families, like a kid killing another kid, whose mother would you want to be? [Softly] If I had to pick, I'd rather be me. I'd rather be the person who suffered the abuse than the person who committed it. The soul-consequences of harming vulnerable people are quite devastating. I'd rather be me than her.

You reached out to her former religious order.

It was a colossal waste of effort and time, and a whole education. I thought I could reach a settlement with her order. I asked for an acknowledgement of the abuse, information about what allowed it to happen, intervention to address sex abuse by the order, and financial restitution. But they got on the skinny side of legal, which is what my church has done way too often. When my church starts mistaking what is legal for what is moral, we are in deep trouble. But we do it a lot.

I have always operated under the assumption that victims and perpetrators are part of the church. Well, the church has said, "Oh, no. This person is part of us but not that person." Or: "The person is part of us in this situation but not that situation." Part of my education was learning that both victims and perpetrators are carrying the shame of the whole church. Everyone pretends we're not here. In reality, we are all involved. My perpetrator could get at me because I was so nested in church.

My belief in reconciliation and safety is why I have chosen for the last seven years to serve on an external review board for a religious community. That is the model for the church. [The board reviews investigations, decisions and safety plans in cases of sexual abuse.]

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A person, however broken, doesn't fall outside of the love of God and the love and care of the community. In my view, that means "heal 'em or home 'em." Heal them, or keep them safely at home. 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.

Once you let go of that hundredth sheep, there's gonna be a 99th at risk. We cannot let go of that hundredth sheep, even if it is a perpetrator! We have to find a way to stay in community, safely, with appropriate and respectful boundaries and necessary sanctions.

How else have you been involved in the church's response to sexual abuse?

The church doesn't want to have much to do with me.

The leadership of the church hasn't had an effective response to sexual abuse. Their response has been to pretend, deny, deflect and lawyer up. The few brave people — inside the church and out — who have tried to change that response have been demonized, ignored and othered. Church leaders say, "You don't know what you're talking about," or "The exigencies don't allow us to do this." First they "other" the victim. And then the perpetrator. The response has not been uniformly proportional, just and responsible. The bishops failed miserably with the Dallas Charter.

In what way?

The bishops let go of the hundredth sheep. It was their job to keep all of us together. Not in the same room. Not in the same circumstances. But they let go of the hundredth sheep because they hadn't done their job prior to the charter.

Zero tolerance was a mistake. [Zero tolerance, according to the Dallas Charter, is the automatic and permanent removal from church ministry for a single admitted or established act of sexual abuse.] It only addresses acts by individual priests, not the systemic cover-up and denial. It considers all acts as equally heinous, rather than promoting a careful review of particular situations that lead to prudential judgments. It promotes secrecy and lies and is contrary to Christian values. It doesn't allow priests to openly discuss their fears and concerns and seek treatment — for fear of losing their priesthood. It is the cheap-grace approach that makes people feel safe without actually making people safer.

Zero tolerance covered the bishops' behinds. It didn't serve the people of God. It didn't serve the perpetrators or the victims. You can't throw people away! Where do you throw them? Into another community, with no money or resources? But that has been the response of church leaders. They threw away the inconvenient ones, the expensive ones, the ones who got caught, the troublemakers, rather than do the hard work of dealing with the underlying issues.

What would you say to a fellow survivor who decides to sue and wants to see the perpetrator cut off from the church?

One of the things that happens to victims is their choices are taken from them. So I would support their decision to do whatever they found necessary to get to the truth of their experience.

However, I would also say: Make sure you are acting in your self-interest, what you know, hope or can reasonably expect to bring hope and healing. Make sure that you have not traded the position of victim for the position of perpetrator — to just get even. It will not satisfy. As you seek justice, do not become what you fear and hate. It is too easy. In my wallet I carry a quote from Socrates: "Do not return evil for evil no matter what the evil is." Resist the impulse to increase the level of violence in the world. And walk in the light, tell the truth, and, as Jesus said, it will set you free.

I would say: If a perpetrator needs to be held safely away from children, with sanctions, it might be your job to make sure that happens. But if the perpetrator was your son or brother, or if it was you, how would you wish to be treated? This is the basis of our faith. I am supposed to endeavor at all times to treat you as I would like to be treated. It is hard work.

How have you attempted to be part of the solution?

I worked diligently to get Catholic dioceses and religious orders to pilot a non-adversarial tribunal. I believed there should be a non-adversarial way to compensate victims and reincorporate them into the community (if they wanted), while also holding accountable perpetrators and the institutions that supported them.

I actually got the idea from an article in the Jesuit journal America about just compensation for victims ["The Future of Sexual Abuse Litigation," July 7, 2003]. I called the author, Patrick Schiltz, and told him I would like to try it. He said, "Go ahead."

I had already used a non-adversarial process to receive restitution in my case. The archdiocese reimbursed my high school tuition, which I thought was just, since they owned the school and should have kept a better handle on who taught there. In 2003, I used the money to found an organization called Solidarity, which sought to establish non-adversarial tribunals. It didn't get very far, however. People were not interested. I have several binders of people I wrote to, including leaders of female and male religious orders, to try to get a hearing from them. You would have thought I was running for office. I wrote letters, followed up, harassed them.​

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In 2006 and 2007, I made common cause with the group Voice of the Faithful in Minnesota and organized two events called "Voices of Hope," which created space for victims of sexual abuse by female religious, leaders of religious orders of women, and a psychologist who had worked with female offenders.

Along with two other victims, I also went to the Minnesota Department of Corrections and petitioned for a restorative justice practice — a peacemaking circle — with sex offenders and proxy victims. For eight weeks, we met weekly with three people who had committed sexual offenses. It was a transformative experience. We called it Victims and Offenders in Community Having a Restorative Experience. The acronym Vocare is Latin for "vocation," or "to call out."

I have spoken to sex offenders at the Minnesota state prisons in Rush City and Lino Lakes. I have spoken to restorative justice classes at Metropolitan State University. And I have done the Uncommon Conversation with Gil Gustafson.

How long have you worked with Gil Gustafson?

I met Gil at the annual conference for the Minnesota Chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, or MnATSA, in 2006 or 2007. Gil attended the conference, and I presented in a breakout session. In 2012, a staff person for the Department of Corrections asked if we would speak to D.O.C. [department of corrections] staff about our experiences.

I told Gil, "I'm only willing to work with you if I know everything you have ever done. You have to understand that I will break your legs if you ever lie to me." (Well, maybe I was not quite that strong.) I told him, "I'll do this with you, and we'll show a new model of how people can actually be together." Gil agreed, and we led the training. That was the beginning of our relationship.


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


The church needs both of us in order to heal and have a decent response. It can't cut off two ends and have us carry everyone's shame. We all have to carry our own shame, and we have to help each other.

Gil and I formed Uncommon Conversation, which in some ways arose from the ashes of Solidarity. We hosted these forums in November 2012 and March 2014.

And we're doing these interviews. People need to hear the story, so we would take it on the road and do it anywhere. It is very hard work. It is all self-funded. [Pause] We love our church.

Have you received any negative feedback from other victims for working with Gil?

Oh yeah. Oh sure. One person said, "What the f--- are you doing? You can't do this." And I said, "So, in other words, there is only one way to do this, and that way is to shoot 'em all, and never trust any of 'em?"

Growing up, I learned to depend more on behavior than status. Behavior determines my relationship with you. I need to be able to trust but verify. I need to see you walk the talk. We have to judge based on behavior not status. I ask people: There are no good priests? There are no bad victims? Who is responsible when I make bad choices? I am. And Gil is responsible for his.

There is a tendency to infantilize victims and say, "Oh, poor thing. They can't do anything," and pity 'em. I don't need your pity. I need your consistent engagement with me as an adult, with respectful boundaries. I need it from priests. I need it from victims. I need it from family members. I need it from church. It's what we need.

People ask how I could ever trust him. I say: I don't trust perpetrators as a group. I don't trust groups. I trust individuals. When I see individuals within a group that are moving in a particular direction, I am willing to say they are doing something right. I cannot believe that everything will always be dark. There is light. And I must say when there is light too, in order to live an evidentiary life.

Uncommon Conversation is a model that should be more widely employed. It allows us to live together with empathy and peace.

It is important to remember: What if it were you in this lousy, leaking boat? How do you want to be treated? If I treat you badly, how is that going to make sure that you want to behave well? We are not part of the solution if we shame and throw people away and make them carry our shame. What will keep them from wanting to go toward the dark side of their compulsions? If I put someone in the dark and treat them badly, how does it help keep people safe?

If you behave well, you belong in community. If you need certain adaptations, like a ramp, or sign language, I accommodate it. If you need appropriate boundaries for other things, like childcare, I take care of it. The acceptance of these perpetrators is another challenge to the inclusivity of the Gospel. It is either that, or buy a bunch of bells. Then we'll all ring our bells; we'll all be lepers. I refuse to do that.

[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: Making things right .

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