Documents contradict Nienstedt testimony on priest's sexual assault

Archbishop John Neinstedt's video testimony
Archbishop John Nienstedt answered questions about his handling of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis during an April 2, 2014, deposition.
Courtesy of Jeff Anderson and Associates

Archbishop John Nienstedt gave a false statement under oath about his knowledge of a priest's criminal conviction for sexually assaulting a child, letters obtained by MPR News show.

Nienstedt testified on April 2 that he first learned of the criminal conviction of the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, an archdiocesan priest, "during the last six months." He also claimed little knowledge of Gustafson. "I believe that he is retired," Nienstedt testified. "He's in our monitoring program, and he's living on his own."

That statement surprised Catholic parishioner LaLonne Murphy, who had written to Nienstedt more than six years ago to inform him of Gustafson's criminal conviction and his ongoing work as a consultant for Twin Cities parishes.

Murphy, who retired last year as director of liturgy and music at St. Edward's parish in Bloomington, provided MPR News copies of the letters she sent to Nienstedt, as well as the archbishop's response.

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Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

Nienstedt's false statement casts doubt on his credibility as he struggles to respond to a clergy sex abuse scandal that has led to calls for his resignation as the leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

This latest revelation marks the second time that Nienstedt's testimony in that April deposition has been called into question. MPR News reported in August that Nienstedt gave false testimony about his knowledge of a different priest accused of abuse.

In a statement released Thursday, Nienstedt said, "I was as accurate as possible in my April 2014 deposition, recalling details from years past to the best of my ability. I take every report of clergy sexual abuse of a minor very seriously, and while I tried to remember details of Gilbert Gustafson's status during my four hour deposition, I was not able immediately to recall specific details or that I had received correspondence from Ms. Murphy six years earlier.

He added, "I receive thousands of letters every year."

Murphy wrote her first letter to Nienstedt on May 2, 2008, the same day he became archbishop.

"His reputation said that he was a really good business person," Murphy said, "and I thought, all right, a really good business person would want to know this and would want to take care of this."

Murphy told Nienstedt, "From the public documents I have seen, he spent four and a half months in jail, completed probation, and paid a $40 fine."

She described the allegations against Gustafson and mentioned that she had spotted him at a conference in Florida, sitting at a table with employees of the archdiocese. She also informed Nienstedt that Gustafson had continued to work for Twin Cities parishes as a private consultant.

"It's time for Gil Gustafson to get his sleazy self and his personal demons removed from the payroll of the Catholic Church, anywhere in the world," she wrote. "Thank you for tending to this atrocity."

Nienstedt wrote back about two weeks later to say that he had no control over Gustafson because he was no longer a priest of the archdiocese. Nienstedt also referred to Gustafson as a former priest. That statement was not true, though Murphy had no way of knowing it.

Gustafson had pleaded guilty in 1983 to sexually assaulting Brian Herrity, a boy who lived in White Bear Lake, and was sentenced to several months in jail. Herrity told police that Gustafson first abused him when he was 10 or 11 years old, and that the abuse continued for about five years.

Former Archbishop Harry Flynn
Former Archbishop Harry Flynn speaks at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in St. Paul.
Judy Griesedieck

Herrity later died of AIDS, which he acquired from another sexual contact. Gustafson remained in the priesthood and went on to work for Catholic Charities and as a consultant for parishes.

In 2006, Archbishop Harry Flynn declared Gustafson medically disabled because he assaulted a child and, in a secret deal made public by MPR News earlier this year, agreed to give him special monthly payments. As part of the deal, Gustafson agreed not to wear a Roman collar or do anything else that would reveal he was still a priest.

Former archdiocesan accounting director Scott Domeier told MPR News last year that Nienstedt had signed off on payments to Gustafson and other priests accused of child sex abuse.

In his letter to Murphy, Nienstedt also claimed that Gustafson had voluntarily left ministry in 2002 after U.S. bishops adopted a zero tolerance policy on clergy sex abuse. He did not mention the secret deal.

He added, "It is my understanding that he has taken a secular job which does bring him into contact with Catholics on occasion. You should further know that the Archdiocese has not hired Gustafson nor his firm nor do we intend to do so."

Murphy was disappointed.

"I thought that it's the same old, same old, that really nothing was going to change," she said.

Murphy was also surprised at Nienstedt's claim that he had no control over Gustafson's employment at local parishes. Archdiocesan priests take a vow of obedience to the archbishop. And although parishes are separately incorporated from the archdiocese, Nienstedt often intervenes to make recommendations.

Gilbert Gustafson
Gilbert Gustafson

"There's a reason for hierarchy in our whole system," Murphy said. "And to me, this was more covering up and saying, 'Well, gee ... what can I do?'"

Murphy wrote one more letter to the archbishop. Regardless of whether Gustafson worked for a parish or the chancery, it was wrong and Nienstedt should stop it, she said.

Murphy also hinted at her own personal connection to the clergy sex abuse scandal. She wrote that as a survivor herself she found the situation disturbing.

Murphy told MPR News that she was sexually abused as a young woman from 1969 to 1970 in the Diocese of New Ulm by the Rev. David Roney. Roney was removed from ministry in April 2002 and died in 2003, according to court records. Several people, including Murphy, have sued the New Ulm diocese for failing to protect them from Roney's abuse. Murphy said she received a financial settlement.

Nienstedt, she said, never replied to her other letter.

The archbishop's testimony on Gustafson wasn't the only false statement he made in the April 2 deposition.

Nienstedt said he didn't know until March that the Rev. Kenneth LaVan was still in ministry in violation of church policy. LaVan was accused in the 1980s of sexually assaulting at least one teenage girl and "sexually exploiting" several women.

"I was not aware that he was publicly in ministry," Nienstedt said, referring to LaVan. "And as soon as I realized it, I had his faculties removed."

Though retired, LaVan continued to assist with Masses at Twin Cities parishes until he was formally removed in December 2013.

Nienstedt said he learned of LaVan's continuing ministry as part of a review of clergy files conducted by the Kinsale Group, a firm hired by the archdiocese.

In response to the MPR News report, Nienstedt said he didn't learn until last year that LaVan had been accused of child sexual abuse, although he said he was aware of allegations of "sexual improprieties with several adult women."

Murphy said she didn't look for the letters she sent to Nienstedt regarding Gustafson until a few months ago when she realized they could provide evidence the archbishop wasn't truthful when he testified under oath.

She thinks there are two possible explanations for why Nienstedt claimed he didn't know until recently about Gustafson's criminal conviction.

"Either he chose to not tell the truth in his deposition or he didn't remember," she said. "And I think each are morally questionable. To not remember means he didn't care. It didn't have enough of his attention that he didn't have it as a priority of something that he would have to make note of."

Nienstedt, she added, has lost the moral authority to serve as archbishop and should be removed by the Vatican.


Read here: Nienstedt testimony claims he learned of a priest's criminal conviction within the past six months

Read here: Parishioner informs Archbishop Nienstedt of the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson's criminal conviction

Read here: Letter from Nienstedt to LaLonne Murphy responding to questions about Gustafson