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Documents cast new doubt on Nienstedt testimony about abusive priest

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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 deposition.
Courtesy of Jeff Anderson and Associates

Hundreds of pages of legal documents released Monday provide more evidence that Archbishop John Nienstedt gave false testimony about a Twin Cities priest who pleaded guilty in 1983 to sexually assaulting a child.

Nienstedt in April had claimed under oath that he first learned of the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson's criminal conviction within the previous six months. The latest documents show the archbishop received yearly monitoring reports on Gustafson that mentioned the priest's criminal conviction from 2009 to 2013. 

The archdiocese's attorney also told Nienstedt about the conviction in a 2008 memo. That year, the archdiocese allowed Gustafson to travel to Orlando, where the priest would be "in an area where there are often many children," one archdiocesan official wrote, adding, "He prepares every time he is around kids but feels that the fascination is waning." 

Monday's 812-page document release by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson offers the closest look yet at how Nienstedt handled the Gustafson case. Most of the documents from Nienstedt's predecessors had already been made public through past lawsuits or news reports.

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

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis turned over the documents to Anderson as part of a lawsuit filed by a man who said he was sexually abused by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the 1970s. The lawsuit, which was settled earlier this month, accused the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona of creating a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret. 

The claim forced the archdiocese to turn over the files of dozens of priests accused of sexually assaulting children. Anderson released several files earlier this year and said he plans to release others in the next few weeks.

The Gustafson documents offer a glimpse of his life from the mundane to the alarming.

In notes from a meeting last year, Gustafson's archdiocese monitor writes the priest is doing fine: "Overall, things going okay, reports business not as busy as it could be, but no financial issues."

Other documents indicate the archdiocese provided lax monitoring of Gustafson after the priest was told to leave ministry in 2002. 

Gilbert Gustafson
Gilbert Gustafson
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In 2012, for instance, the archdiocese allowed Gustafson to seek help from a spiritual director who lived in Nebraska, rather than from someone who lived in the Twin Cities. Gustafson said the man traveled regularly and could meet with him during layovers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

Gustafson also assisted at funeral homes, provided "spiritual direction" to a woman and worked as a consultant for Twin Cities parishes and social service organizations, the documents show.

MPR News reported last week that parishioner LaLonne Murphy had informed Nienstedt of Gustafson's criminal conviction in 2008, within a few days of Nienstedt's installation as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

In a statement released last week in response to the MPR News report, Nienstedt said, "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 to immediately recall specific details or that I had received correspondence from Ms. Murphy six years earlier."

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

Nienstedt declined a request by MPR News to explain the contradictions between his testimony and the documents released Monday.

More victims

It's unclear how many children Gustafson has admitted to abusing over the years. In documents from the 1980s, which were released more than a decade ago, Gustafson admitted to abusing "young boys."  The exact number is not stated. 

In May 2013, John Selvig, who monitors the archdiocese's offending priests, talked to Gustafson about the risk of lawsuits allowed under the Minnesota Child Victims Act. The meeting notes, part of the documents released Monday, suggest the men discussed Gustafson's abuse of several children.

Selvig wrote that Gustafson "thinks there are three out there from late 1970's to 1982. No publicity has come to him yet."

On Monday, Selvig said Gustafson was referring to abuse cases previously known to the archdiocese and law enforcement, though it's unclear how Selvig knew they were the same cases. 

During the police investigation in 1983, Gustafson's lawyer, Theodore Collins, told a detective that "there was probably less than ten other kids that Father Gustafson had had sexual contact with," according to a White Bear Lake police report.  

The documents released today include internal memos that reference an allegation that Gustafson sexually touched a boy from about 1972 to 1974, when the boy was 8 to 10 years old.  The archdiocese heavily redacted the documents, and it's unclear when the archdiocese first learned of the allegation. 

Gustafson served at St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake from 1977 to 1982, where he abused a boy whose parents he had befriended. Brian Herrity told police in 1983 that Gustafson first sexually assaulted him when he was 10 or 11 and continued to abuse him for about five years. Gustafson pleaded guilty to abusing Herrity and was sentenced to six months in jail. Herrity later died of AIDS, from a sexual contact as an adult. 

In 2002, the archdiocese faced a lawsuit from a woman who said Gustafson sexually abused her from 1977 to 1982, when she was 5 to 10 years old. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Nienstedt's predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn, claimed in 2002 that he had removed Gustafson from ministry. He declared Gustafson medically disabled because of the abuse as part of a secret signed agreement in 2006. However, as recently as 2011, Gustafson served as a facilitator for a leadership program at the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis and Ascension Church in north Minneapolis.

'Look after her children'

The documents showed that a few days after Murphy, the Catholic parishioner, informed Nienstedt of Gustafson's criminal conviction, Nienstedt received confirmation of the conviction from the archdiocese's top attorney.

Lawyer Andrew Eisenzimmer explained in a May 12, 2008 memo that Gustafson had pleaded guilty and "spent some time in the workhouse. At the present time he has no assignment by this Archdiocese."

Eisenzimmer added that the archdiocese had settled "two or three lawsuits alleging abuse by Gustafson."

Less than two weeks later, Nienstedt received a letter from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that asked the archbishop "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 letter, written by then-secretary Angelo Amato, appears to have been sent in reply to letters sent by Nienstedt's predecessor, Archbishop Flynn. 

In July 2008, Nienstedt approved a monitoring plan for Gustafson and signed a document that said Gustafson had been criminally charged and sentenced to jail for "sexual misconduct with minor males in the early 80's."

The plan required Gustafson to receive therapy, avoid unsupervised contact with children, and submit to random checks of his computer and home visits with an archdiocesan monitor. Gustafson could not return to ministry, the document said, and was prohibited from viewing pornography or engaging in other "activities commonly understood to violate a vow of celibacy."

The archdiocese has defended its payments to Gustafson and other priests by saying that it is required by church law to provide assistance to all archdiocese priests, even those who have admitting to sexually assaulting children. However, in Gustafson's monitoring plan the archdiocese warned that "failure to comply with the Monitoring Program could result in other monitoring measures and may include loss of any or all Archdiocesan subsistence." 

An archdiocese monitor met with Gustafson at his home several times a year. In October 2009, Gustafson told the monitor that his neighbor "who recently divorced asked if in an emergency he would look after her children," the monitor wrote in a report.

Gustafson "was taken aback at the time but he understands he cannot do that and needs to tell her that," the report said.

Two months later, the monitor followed up with Gustafson about the neighbor's request.

Gustafson told the monitor "he had talked to his neighbor about his being uncomfortable having her kids in an emergency. He sensed it went OK and she did not seem to be totally aware of his background," according to the report.

The monitor wrote, "I told him if in an extraordinary (sic) he found himself in that situation where he couldn't say no to call someone even me to be there with him."

The documents don't include any plan by the archdiocese to contact the neighbor and inform her of Gustafson's criminal conviction. 

Gustafson continued to tell the monitor that he was sexually attracted to teenage boys. At a November 15, 2012 meeting at the Gustafson's home, Gustafson told the monitor that he "does internal journaling about it, removes himself from direct contact with teenagers, and makes sure to make disclosure to those he works for about his criminal history while a priest."

A year later, Nienstedt included Gustafson on a court-ordered list of "priests with credible claims against them of sexual abuse of a minor," posted on the archdiocese's website.