Convicted priest wants to buy St. Paul chancery, aid sex abuse victims

One of two chancery buildings
One of two chancery buildings owned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that are for sale.
Regina McCombs | MPR News

The Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, a priest convicted of child sex abuse, is behind a new effort to raise money to buy the headquarters of the Twin Cities archdiocese and turn it into a healing center for abuse survivors.

The website for the nonprofit Gilead Project, which seeks to raise money online, does not mention the priest's criminal conviction or acknowledge any abuse allegations against Gustafson. It also does not indicate that he is a priest.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis wants to sell the nearly 60,000 square-foot chancery property across the street from the Cathedral of St. Paul to pay creditors in bankruptcy. The archdiocese's realtor has listed the price as "negotiable."

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The Gilead Project is described on its website as "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." Gustafson met Pavlak a few years ago at a restorative justice program run by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

"At that time we both decided together that we would show a new model of how to be, that there is recovery from this for victims," said Pavlak, who would seem an unlikely ally with Gustafson: She says she was sexually abused as a teenager by a teacher at a Catholic high school.

Gustafson pleaded guilty in 1983 to sexually abusing a boy in White Bear Lake and was sentenced to six months in jail. As part of the investigation, Gustafson's attorney, Theodore Collins, told a detective "that there was probably less than 10 other kids that Father Gustafson had had sexual contact with," according to a police report.

Gustafson later admitted in a 2004 deposition to sexually abusing three more boys. He blamed his sexual attraction to teenagers in part on his unwed sister's pregnancy, a traumatic event that he said made him think that "heterosexuality seemed dangerous."

Pavlak and Gustafson say they haven't figured out exactly what the center would be like, but they want it to serve as a space for abuse survivors to meet and get help, and as a hub for research on how to prevent abusers from harming more kids. The space would also include a memorial to those abused by priests.

They've focused on buying the chancery because of its symbolic value. "It's critically important that we have a monument as permanent as the cathedral itself," said Pavlak.

The pair are basing the plan on a model of restorative justice but they admit there's nothing like this out there where priests who've abused kids would be inside a building with people who've been abused.

David Clohessy, who heads the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says he has never heard of anything like it, either.

"I think it's the height of arrogance for a child molesting cleric to say, 'I sexually assaulted kids but I can help sexually assaulted people heal from this,'" he said.

Clohessy says the archdiocese should let parishioners know that a convicted child abuser is trying to buy the chancery. He says the proposal threatens to put kids at risk.

While there are buyers interested in archdiocese properties, the process is confidential and "it would be improper for us to release information on who is involved or comment on any prospective buyers or offers at this time," Joe Kueppers, the archdiocese chancellor for civil affairs, said in a statement.

For years, Gustafson has tried to convince the archdiocese to hire him as an expert on child sex abuse.

In 1989, Gustafson wrote to then-Archbishop John Roach offering his services in writing policy on "criminal sexuality" and offering to counsel other abusers. He later suggested he could work as a "shadow researcher" to help the archdiocese respond to sexual abuse victims and could create a "recovery house" for priests with sexual problems.

Roach rejected Gustafson's proposals, and Gustafson instead worked for Catholic Charities and as a consultant.

In 2006, then-Archbishop Harry Flynn declared Gustafson to be medically disabled because he had sexually abused a child. In a secret, legally binding deal, the archdiocese agreed to provide Gustafson with retirement benefits and other "transitional support and benefits." In exchange, Gustafson agreed to "take consistent, explicit steps to avoid being identified" as a priest.

Gustafson says he has told prospective donors that he's abused kids but adds that he hasn't figured out what to do about disclosing that information on the website.

He insists he's not trying to use the project to gain access to children. He says he feels called by God to minister to victims of abuse and that buying the chancery and converting it to a center that aids abuse victims is part of his ministry.

He acknowledges some people might not trust him.

"I get it. I've caused harm, and I engaged in behavior that is reprehensible, but I am not a monster," he said. "It goes back to that line. I am not a monster. I have done monstrous things, but I am not a monster."

He and Pavlak say they're waiting to find out whether their bid, which she puts at several million dollars, has been accepted. If it is, they hope to open the new center sometime next year.

Editor's note (Sept. 17, 2015): An earlier version of this story said Gustafson was one of two people mentioned by name on the Gilead Project website. In addition to Gustafson and Pavlak, the site lists three board members.