'Uncommon conversation' on sex abuse falls silent

(Dreamstime/Bernd Schmidt/NCR staff)
(Dreamstime/Bernd Schmidt/NCR staff)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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An "uncommon conversation" is on hold in Minnesota.

After meeting a decade ago at a sex abuse treatment conference, Gil Gustafson and Susan Pavlak each came to see in their pasts a possible way forward for their home archdiocese, St. Paul-Minneapolis, as it struggled to deal with the scandal of clergy sexual abuse.

Pavlak, now 62, was sexually abused as a child by a teacher who was a former nun at a Catholic school. Gustafson, now 66, pleaded guilty in 1983 to sexually abusing a teenage boy, and has since admitted to abuse of three other male minors. By coming to know each other, each had grown personally. They wondered if they could duplicate that experience for other victims and abusers.

In November 2012, the two held their first Uncommon Conversation event, an effort to bring together the local Catholic community — abuse survivors, parishioners, church staff, clergy and also the abusers themselves — to begin a conversation about the abuse crisis, how it has personally affected a multitude of people and how they together might move beyond the scandal.

"This is an opportunity for people to speak and be heard about a traumatic event in their life, in their family life, in their spiritual life, in their community life. And listen to others' experience of that, move forward and through and out of that trauma into recovery, whatever that may look like for them," Pavlak told NCR.

They believed they had a model to bring healing not just to their local community, but to the wider Catholic community torn apart by this unspeakable tragedy of trust betrayed and lives shattered. They raised profound questions about forgiveness and mercy and the community's responsibility toward both victim and perpetrator. They believed they offered a path of healing, with victim and perpetrator standing together.

The path they took, instead, led them into a thicket of tensions and no clear answers.

Their project has stalled in recent years, overcome to a large extent by troubles over sex abuse in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, which has seen the resignation of an archbishop and auxiliary bishop; the leadership of key archdiocesan officers being called into question; and the archdiocese declaring bankruptcy in January 2015.*

Left unanswered are the questions Pavlak and Gustafson set out to ask, about how to heal this community with justice and mercy.

'I knew it wasn't right'

When the U.S. bishops in 2002 adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, or the Dallas Charter, they enacted a zero tolerance policy toward clergy who committed a single act of sexual abuse. Gustafson was among the "charter priests" who were permanently removed from ministry following its implementation. By then, the Twin Cities archdiocese had known of his sexual abuse of children for two decades.

Ordained a priest in 1977, Gustafson's first parish assignment placed him as an associate priest at St. Mary of the Lake Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. A year later, he was made temporary administrator of the parish after its pastor, Fr. Michael Kennedy, had a heart attack.

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In 1982, Gustafson was named associate director of continuing education and spiritual growth for priests at the archdiocesan Center for Growth in Priestly Ministry; to prepare, he planned to undertake graduate studies at the Blackfriars college in Oxford, England.

But those plans abruptly changed later that summer, when the parents of Brian Herrity informed the archdiocese that Gustafson had sexually abused their 15-year-old son, according to documents unsealed in 2014 as part of the John Doe 1 settlement.

In a January 2015 interview with Jesuit Fr. Luke Hansen, Gustafson said his sexual abuse of four boys, ages 10-15, began within his first year at St. Mary of the Lake, advancing from fondling over their clothing, to directly touching their genitals, to oral sex. In one instance, before Gustafson was to leave for Europe, he visited the Herrity house, where he had Brian perform oral sex on him on the porch while his family was inside.

"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," said Gustafson, who immediately confessed when confronted about his abuse of Herrity.

Instead of Oxford, Gustafson headed to Washington, D.C., where he enrolled in the Catholic University of America, and also entered into psychotherapy at Georgetown University Medical Center. In a September 1982 letter, he thanked Archbishop John Roach for serving as "a 'scapegoat' for my change in educational plans."

According to news reports at the time, the police learned of the allegation in January 1983 — four months after the archdiocese sent Gustafson away for treatment. That May, Gustafson pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal sexual misconduct related to Herrity. He was fined $40 and received an 18-month sentence in a state prison. The sentence was immediately stayed and replaced with 10 years' probation and six months in a county workhouse, of which he served four and a half months.

gustafson-police-report-1983 resize.jpg
The first page of the 1983 police report on Gil Gustafson's abuse of Brian Herrity

While on work release, Gustafson served as human resource coordinator for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Upon his release, he entered continuous outpatient therapy, receiving positive marks from therapists for his progress.

Gustafson has adamantly stated that he has not abused children since his conviction; allegations brought against him have been confined to his time at St. Mary of the Lake. The Herrity family received $150,000 from a civil settlement. Brian Herrity died in 1995 of complications from AIDS at age 28.

Throughout therapy, several explanations emerged as to why Gustafson sexually abused children. One link was to distress he felt from a family crisis stemming from his older sister becoming pregnant out of wedlock. While a 1987 assessment from St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, noted that he said he was never sexually abused or mistreated, Gustafson told Hansen that he later came to understand that he was sexually abused at age 6 by an older neighborhood boy, as the two would remove their pants and spank each other. He first noticed his sexual attraction to young males during his final years in seminary.

Counseling also revealed a "fusion of the two forbiddens" in his life: sex and anger. The priest explained that after he became parish administrator, his work led to persistent feelings of exhaustion. With it developed a sense of entitlement, and acting upon his sexual fantasies with young boys became a type of reward for himself.

"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," he told Hansen. (Gustafson discusses this at length in his interview with Hansen.)

St. Luke Institute put Gustafson through a battery of tests, reaching a diagnosis of paraphilia, with ephebophilia in remission. Paraphilia refers to the need for atypical sexual behavior for gratification, and ephebophilia is the desire for sex with older teenagers.

St. Luke recommended he continue therapy and commit himself to a lifelong management plan, noting in their view that "sexual disorders such as his have an element of permanence."

Gustafson never returned to parish ministry, although the archdiocese considered the possibility, including perhaps in another diocese. Instead, he took on more administrative roles, all with explicit instructions to have no contact with children.

Following his release from the workhouse program, Gustafson became a chaplain to a cloistered monastery of Poor Clare Sisters and continued to work with Catholic Charities, first in establishing a personnel office and then later as director of its community outreach program.

In 1988, Roach shot down Gustafson's participation in a statewide workshop on sexual issues in ministry, stating in a letter, "We are sitting on an absolute powderkeg on this issue and to run any more risks than necessary makes no sense to me at all."

Later that year, a chaplaincy at St. Mary's Hospital never materialized after former pastor Kennedy raised concerns that Gustafson also had "some inappropriate sexual acting out" with late-adolescent to 20-year-old women. Gustafson has denied any abuse of girls; the archdiocese settled a lawsuit with one woman in 2005.

Two years later, in 1990, Gustafson began working with vicar general Fr. Kevin McDonough as a special chancery consultant, with McDonough citing his planning and organizational expertise, along with "some good technical and personal sensitivity to issues around the sexual misbehavior of clergy." Gustafson's responsibilities would include tracking policy developments elsewhere in the church and literature on sexual abuse, working with a committee to assist parishes affected by clergy misconduct, organizing details on individual allegations, and serving as McDonough's "conscience" by identifying inadequacies with how the archdiocese was proceeding in any given case.

When McDonough approached Gustafson in 1993 to head a review of the archdiocese's response and assistance to victims of clergy sexual misconduct, Gustafson suggested that his role be limited to a "shadow" researcher, aware of how his involvement as a convicted abuser would likely be perceived.

"It is imperative that I not be identified as the primary architect of any revision in our response. ... My history as a perpetrator could neutralize the worth of any suggestions I might make. I think we should carefully review the advisability of my assisting in this task because of the potential for backlash," he wrote to McDonough.

Gustafson continued his work at the chancery, assisting on the revision of the archdiocesan policy on sexual misconduct, "A Time to Heal." That work, along with his nearly 19-year chaplain role with the Poor Clares, ended in June 2002, when he was permanently removed from ministry under the Dallas Charter.

As part of Gustafson's removal, he is restricted from publicly presenting himself as a priest, including use of the title "Father," and engaging in sacramental or priestly ministry. After his removal from ministry, Gustafson moved into a private home he shared with a longtime friend who was a priest. By 2004, he began work with a friend in a consulting business that at times worked with Twin Cities parishes.

In 2006, he entered the archdiocese's monitoring program. He also reached agreement with the archdiocese that classified him as "permanently and totally disabled" because of his pedophilia diagnosis. That allowed him to collect retirement benefits, which also drew more ire from the press and public.

Bold plan, public backlash

As these events unfolded, meanwhile, Pavlak and Gustafson met. Together they dreamed of using their personal experience of a victim and perpetrator working in common cause as a way to help the community heal.

Their first Uncommon Conversation, held at but not sponsored by the University of St. Thomas in 2012, drew roughly 60 people. A second followed in 2014, but then their efforts began to hit snags.

They set their sights on a bold plan. Through a 501(c)(3) nonprofit they established called the Gilead Project, they wanted to buy the former archdiocesan chancery building, up for sale as part of bankruptcy proceedings. They had hoped to transform the building — a symbol of the archdiocesan abuse crisis — into a hub for addressing and ultimately eradicating child sexual abuse. The project draws its name from Jeremiah 8:22: "Is there no balm in Gilead?" referring to a region near the Sea of Galilee known for its healing salve.

"We thought it could be redeemed and be a light on the hill," Pavlak told NCR. Instead, it stalled all their plans.

Reaction was swift in condemning the effort, coming in 2015 near a high point of the abuse scandal: four months after Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned and Ramsey County brought criminal charges against the archdiocese for its handling of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer.

They couldn't raise the money needed amid widespread public backlash against their vision. The primary criticism waged against them: Gustafson's involvement.

Pavlak said that because of Gustafson's background they left him off the board and without a direct role beyond a participant. Still, the Gilead Project website notes that it is "a collaborative endeavor of Susan Pavlak and Gil Gustafson and allies who seek to transform the environment of Church and society regarding sexual abuse and abuse of power." The site makes no mention that Gustafson is still a priest or of his history as a sexual abuser.

"Gil Gustafson doesn't get it," whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger wrote on her blog in September 2015, in response to questions she received about the bid. Haselberger is the former chancellor for canonical affairs who alerted the media and law officials of mishandled allegations in 2013, precipitating the archdiocese's scandal.

A year earlier, she had highlighted the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as a model for a victim-centered approach to allow the church to heal and reconcile from its own scandal. But for her, the Gustfason-Pavlak model completely missed the mark.

"In my opinion, Gustafson's belief that he can somehow be an instrument of healing for victims of abuse is just one more lie that he, along with others who sexually abuse minors, tell in order to justify their behavior. On a fundamental level, it is this capacity for self-delusion that makes sex offenders so difficult to treat, it is why their risk of re-offending remains so high, and it is why no reputable therapist will ever speak of them as 'cured,' " she wrote.

Ultimately, the bid failed, with the Gilead Project raising well under $100,000. A Catholic banker bought the property in April 2016 for $3.2 million.

'Whose sin is unforgivable?'

Since then, the Gilead Project has been silent, save for annual board meetings. The same goes for the Uncommon Conversation project, of which Gustafson is a primary organizer. The conversations, arranged as invitation-only, attempted to use a restorative justice model aimed at communal healing from the sex abuse scandal. At each event, a panel representing a variety of viewpoints on the sexual abuse issue would take turns answering three questions:

  • How has the abuse in the church affected you?
  • What is the way forward for you and for the church?
  • What gives you hope?

After each question, attendees broke into small groups and repeated the exercise.

"The goal was to begin to talk about it, and to create empathy for other people, because it's a polarizing experience, any one of those points on the compass," Pavlak said.

After the conversations in 2012 and 2014, the latter held for church workers at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, the project held in 2016 several small screenings of the film "Spotlight." A third Uncommon Conversation remains in the planning stages, but no date or location has been set. (The Gilead Project envisioned hosting monthly Uncommon Conversations.)

The area climate, it turns out, has not been one receptive to their approach.

"When you have the guy that's one of your two major key players is a confessed and convicted sex offender, then I don't think you're going to get people who've been sexually abused to anything they're running. Period," Frank Meuers, head of the Minnesota chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told NCR. 

From the outset of learning about both projects, he said he wouldn't support them or encourage abuse survivors to participate. No matter how admirable the efforts or how reformed Gustafson may be, Meuers said, an abusive priest cannot play a leading role in the process. He compared the situation to allowing an abusive teacher to return to the classroom or an arsonist to work at a fire station.

A common feeling expressed by several area Catholics was that Gustafson's abuse was seen as so awful and well-documented in the press in the decades since its discovery (a 2006 memo from McDonough said Gustafson "has become the public symbol of clergy misconduct in the Twin Cities"), that he was not the best, or right, messenger for the archdiocese. There's a beleaguered sense of "just go away."

But Pavlak and others have insisted that, for real healing to come to the region, the abusers must play a part in the process. Their defense of Gustafson is largely based on long-held friendships with him, empathy for what he has gone through, a sense of the unique role he could play, and a belief in the Christian call to forgiveness.

"He admitted his crime, he went to jail, he has made what amends he can, he has lived a life of obedience to his superiors and the law, and has not reoffended in 30 years. Isn't that what we want?" Pavlak said.

"It's kind of hypocritical for a church that lionizes Paul, a murderer of Jews, to think that the only unforgivable sin is sexual abuse, whether it's clergy or any other kind," she said.

"Who gets cut out of the community? Whose sin is unforgivable? It's a real question to me, and we have made sex abuse the unforgivable sin."

Mary Novak and Ed Walsh were members of a Christian Life Community small group with Gustafson and have known him for years. Walsh and his wife, herself an abuse survivor, knew the priest before learning of the abuse, so he admittedly approaches the situation not with prejudice against him, but "a prejudice for him."

"To me, he's one of the people who's got a thankless job. He's not appreciated either by church officials or by the community for him trying to get in there and trying to contribute," said Walsh, describing Gustafson as "out there leading with his chin."

"It's a terrible, terrible thing that he did," said Novak, who considers Gustafson a friend of two-plus decades. "But if we believe in forgiveness, it seems to me then we have to come to terms with some of the abusers if we're going to have healing."

Survivor-focused encounters

Aside from public opinion of Gustafson's efforts, a hovering question has been whether they stand in violation of the terms of his permanent removal from ministry. Since Gustafson was never laicized, he remains under the direction of the archdiocese. According to the Dallas Charter, he, as a priest permanently removed from ministry, is "to lead a life of prayer and penance." In addition, a May 27, 2008, letter from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instructed Nienstedt "to monitor Father Gustafson's priestly life so that he does not constitute a risk to minors and does not create scandal among the faithful."

The Twin Cities archdiocese does not see Gustafson's involvement with either Uncommon Conversation or the Gilead Project as an issue with regard to his removal from ministry. In a statement to NCR July 3, Tim O'Malley, director of the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, said, "The Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment continues to meet regularly with Gil Gustafson, with his most recent update occurring in the last 30 days. Gil is in compliance with his status as a priest removed from ministry."

The archdiocese refrained from further comment on either the project or Gustafson's role. O'Malley did add that his office "continues to pursue a number of avenues for reaching out to, supporting, partnering with, and learning from victims/survivors."

As part of the amended civil settlement the archdiocese reached a year ago with Ramsey County — one of the concessions by the archdiocese in exchange for County Attorney John Choi dropping the criminal charges — Archbishop Bernard Hebda is required to participate in at least three restorative justice sessions arranged by Choi's office. Details about those sessions have yet to emerge.

Janine Geske, a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who has spent nearly the past two decades working in the realm of restorative justice, told NCR that she has had recent conversations with the archdiocese.

Her work began in prisons with crime survivors, including those involved in sex crimes, but later extended into the Catholic Church. In 2011, she helped organize an international conference at Marquette University Law School on the clergy sex abuse scandal through its Restorative Justice Initiative, which she founded.

Geske, who is Catholic, has conducted training on her "healing circles" approach with the Milwaukee archdiocese, as well as in Belgium and Ireland and last year in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University through a semester-length program for child protection workers from dioceses around the world.

The "healing circles" seek to bring together stakeholders affected by the abuse crisis: survivors, family, parishioners, practicing priests and church officials, and, at times, priests who abused children. Each takes turns to share their story, a similarity the approach shares with the Uncommon Conversation program.

"The heart of healing restorative justice pieces is to give direct survivors, and indirect survivors frankly, a chance if they want to give voice in a safe environment to exactly what happened," said Geske, who came to the approach after hearing in-the-pew Catholics express frustration with the seemingly never-ending abuse issue. Those comments represented to Geske a lack of understanding of "the deep, deep harm that occurs to a survivor of sexual abuse generally, but particularly clergy sex abuse."

In the few instances where she has brought an abusive priest into a circle discussion or one-on-one encounter with a survivor who wishes to meet with their abuser, the process takes a lot of prep work and is deliberately slow, Geske said. It takes six months or up to a year in some cases, is exclusively survivor-initiated (to avoid chances of re-victimization), and proceeds with their safety at the forefront. Preferably, therapists are involved.

Jesuit Fr. Gerard McGlone, a psychotherapist who since 1992 has worked with trauma victims and perpetrators, echoed the importance of structuring such encounters in a way that are survivor-focused. The process of reconciling victims and perpetrators is a sophisticated and complicated one, he told NCR.

For such a process to play out, McGlone said, it requires survivors and perpetrators to recognize that each holds a different vision of the situation, which presents limitations that prevent either side from leading the process — a view clarified for him this spring when he attended the European Jesuit Safeguarding Conference in Budapest, Hungary.

"You've got to be extremely, extremely objective and therefore provide an atmosphere of utter safety before any initiative like this can take place. And I don't think a former perpetrator nor a survivor can head it," he said.

While both McGlone and Geske supported the idea of an offender priest participating in the process, they insisted it would be detrimental to allow one to take on a leadership role.

"Most victims will never trust that" type of approach, Geske said, partly because abusers often are skilled at manipulation.

But incorporating abusive priests into a program can yield important breakthroughs in some cases, said Fr. Ken Schmidt, a licensed professional counselor who co-founded the Trauma Recovery Program in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Viewing those priests only through their worst sin is an example of black-and-white thinking common with trauma, he said, but that fails to recognize the complexity of the whole person.

"They can begin to see that their identity as a pedophile is not their whole identity. That they can begin to see that there is a person here," Schmidt said.

He cautioned that such an encounter would be a latter part of the healing process and not for everyone. He added that an abusive priest taking on a central, visible role could pose more potential for harm.

McGlone, who in August will become the first associate director for the protection of minors for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, said that he too rejected the vision of Gustafson-as-pariah, and that it's apparent he wants to be an instrument of healing. "But he also has to accept the limitation that others need to invite, he can participate. Because if he's the one inviting, then unfortunately that's not accepting the limitations of his history."

Instead, McGlone recommended an outside organization or arbiter facilitate the dialogue, as occurred for one German Jesuit school whose experience was described at the Budapest conference.

While the Gilead Project and Uncommon Conversation remain in neutral for now, Pavlak and Gustafson hope to kick-start them at some point, perhaps once the archdiocese exits from bankruptcy. The next bankruptcy hearing is set for Aug. 29, with the proceedings in their third year and legal fees surpassing $15 million. The Gilead board plans to meet in the fall. Until then, they intend to wait it out.

"Until that's done, there isn't really any energy in the community for building something new, because they're still in fight mode," Pavlak said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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.

*The date that the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese declared bankruptcy has been corrected.

*Clarification: This story originally reported that Gilead Project representatives approached Frank Meuers of SNAP seeking the group’s endorsement and assistance. After the story published, Meuers retracted that statement, saying SNAP’s endorsement was not sought, which the Gilead Project confirmed. ​

A version of this story appeared in the July 28-August 10, 2017 print issue.

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