After the Rev. Gil Gustafson was convicted of child sex abuse 30 years ago, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis made sure he was financially secure for decades to come.
The church continued his priestly salary and health insurance, covered his living expenses and psychological treatment and paid for his education and training, according to church records and a former archdiocese accountant. It has given him jobs in the chancery, helped him establish his own consulting business and steered clients his way.
In July 2006, Gustafson was declared “disabled” based on his pedophilia, the church said. This allowed him to collect disability checks on top of his earnings as a leadership consultant.
The archdiocese’s long-standing support of Gustafson, outlined in church documents and interviews, has angered abuse victims and their families. They say it’s another sign that the church cares more about the welfare of abusive priests than the children they assaulted.
“Since when is a crime a disability?” asked Jeff Herrity, the father of a boy whom Gustafson was convicted of abusing from 1977 through 1982. “If that’s the case, everyone in prison should be disabled.”
The archdiocese said it is required by church law and “Christian compassion” to care for priests removed from ministry.
“Gustafson is permanently and totally disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits through the Pension Plan for Priests,’’ said a statement to the Star Tribune.
It has been 30 years since Gustafson’s last known instance of child abuse, the archdiocese said. Some of his clients say he is entitled to a second chance.
Gustafson, now 62, lives in a small bungalow in West St. Paul. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
In response to written questions from the Star Tribune, the archdiocese stated that it removed Gustafson from ministry as soon as it learned of his abuse in 1983. He lived under supervision and held mass at a Bloomington monastery for nuns until 2002, the year Catholic bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy for priests who abused children. Officials in Rome sentenced him to a life of prayer and penance. “He cannot function or present himself as a priest,’’ the archdiocese said.
The archdiocese hasn’t revealed how many abusive priests are supported by disability payments. The support is not included in the church’s report this month of $6.2 million spent on victims, priests and lawyers in abuse cases over the past 10 years.
Family’s pain endures
While the church has been supporting Gustafson, the Herrity family has spent decades haunted by the trauma.
Photos of a smiling, sandy-haired Brian Herrity are propped up in the living room of their White Bear Lake home. Brian was one of several boys Gustafson admitted to abusing before a Ramsey County District Court found him guilty of molesting Herrity in 1983, fining him $40 and sentencing him to 10 years probation and six months in jail. He served 4 ½ months.
Brian was a “happy, happy kid,” who liked to jump on his dad’s lap and snuggle and later enjoyed speed skating and wrestling, recalled his father, Jeff Herrity, who encouraged his son to become an altar boy at St. Mary of the Lake Church.
Gustafson, the parish priest, began abusing Brian when he was about 10, said his father. The abuse continued for five years — at the church rectory, the family’s home, on a bike ride, a trip to Valleyfair.
Brian’s class pictures reveal the transformation, from a friendly kid with goofy bangs on his forehead to “a person we couldn’t recognize,” Herrity said.
The years of abuse “mentally and physically destroyed him,” Herrity said. Classmates at Hill-Murray School mocked him after he went public with his abuse, his father said. He began a descent down a “path of destruction” that included drug abuse and promiscuity and ended in his death of complications from AIDS at age 28, in 1995.
“My boy is dead,” Herrity said. “Gustafson is getting paid.”
The family also sees the abuse as a factor in the struggles of Brian’s older brother, Jeff, who died in 2010 at age 45.
“People who say, ‘Move on,’ don’t have a clue how sexual abuse tears at a family,” said Herrity. “You cope. But the family suffers forever.”
The archdiocese paid for Brian’s therapy for a couple of years, Herrity said. A court settlement of $150,000 went into an account for Brian to tap at age 18. After paying the attorney, most of that money “went up his nose,” said his father, referring to his son’s drug use.
As Brian was dying from AIDS, Herrity said he met with the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the former vicar general who handled clergy abuse cases, to ask if the archdiocese could provide any financial help for the medical bills and hospice care. Instead, he said, McDonough “gave me a list of public social workers.”
Church supports priest
After Gustafson’s release from jail, then-Archbishop John Roach pressed for his return to active ministry.
“I want him back in a parish,” Roach wrote to McDonough in 1990. “He has received and complied with far more treatment than anyone else, and it seems to me he has done it well.”
While no parish assignment materialized, Gustafson was allowed to give presentations about his sex offenses and help out at the chancery and at Catholic Charities, according to a written summary of McDonough’s testimony in a 2004 lawsuit against Gustafson.McDonough has since become a central figure in the controversy over the archdiocese’s handling of sex abuse cases. In his 2004 testimony, McDonough estimated that Gustafson abused between four and 15 victims.
Scott Domeier, a former accounting director for the archdiocese now in prison for embezzling more than $600,000, said Gustafson was in a group of sexually abusive priests who were paid greater amounts than those paid to priests who were still active in ministry and in good standing. In Gustafson’s case, the church also paid for his education, travel, room and board and other expenses, at least until 2007, Domeier said.
According to accounting ledgers obtained by the Star Tribune, Gustafson received recurring checks of $600 each for room and board from 2003 to 2006. In November 2002, Gustafson shared a $6,209 education provision with the Rev. Michael Stevens, another priest removed from ministry for child sexual abuse, according to the documents.
Domeier, interviewed by phone at the state correctional facility in Faribault, said he asked McDonough more than once about Gustafson’s multiple sources of income.
“I was told it was transitional, to get him up and running in his own business,” Domeier said. “It didn’t seem fair to me.”
School leaders not informed
Gustafson’s hiring as a leadership consultant for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis in 2009 enraged some school supporters when his background became known after the fact.
The Rev. David Haschka, the school’s founding president, said he hired Gustafson based on a recommendation that he received after calling the chancery. Haschka remembered Gustafson’s criminal history but was assured by a priest personnel expert that Gustafson was safe, he said.
“As far as I knew, Mr. Gustafson had done everything he could do to straighten out his life and become a good citizen,” said Haschka, a Jesuit official who has handled clergy sexual abuse cases.
Haschka said he made sure Gustafson was escorted at all times but never disclosed to the team of school officials that Gustafson was a pedophile with multiple victims.
Some school donors who found out were outraged.
“I didn’t think it was relevant,” Haschka said. “If that was a bad decision, then I made a bad decision.”
Clients accept the past
Gustafson has been hired at venues ranging from Pax Christi Church in Eden Prairie to the University of St. Thomas, where he was on a panel with an abuse victim.
Visitation Monastery in Minneapolis hired him to facilitate a two-year leadership course for a group of North Side residents, its website said.
“When somebody has worked on their issues, and comes through, that’s the mark of a person becoming whole,” said Sister Karen Mohan.
While his sponsors say Gustafson should be allowed to pursue his career, other Catholics say it is wrong for the church to promote a pedophile priest.
LaVonne Murphy was so disturbed when she saw Gustafson at a National Ministry Summit in Florida in 2008, sitting with archdiocese colleagues, that she wrote a letter to Archbishop John Nienstedt.
“I am in utter disbelief that this man is still approved by the diocese to work with parishes as they vision and create goals and plans for the future,” wrote Murphy, a longtime church administrator.
“The man has got to make a living, but he shouldn’t be at a church doing it,” said Murphy. “It’s the same venue where he committed his crimes.”