Abusive priest gets disability, support from Twin Cities archdiocese

Star Tribune exclusive: Archdiocese gave pedophile salary, disability benefits, expenses and consulting work..

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.

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