Season Four, Episode 06 – Hen’s Teeth

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SUSAN PAVLAK:  70 times seven in the scriptures is what Jesus says. How often must I forgive? Well, in the first place, Christians can’t have enemies. It’s forbidden. You can have people with whom you engage in various ways. They can’t have enemies because the enemy denies the divinity in the human creation of the creator. The person who tells the story is ejected and dismissed. So the institution exists to perpetuate itself, and the institution exists for the many, not for the few. And it exists for the many who pulled the power, not for the few who don’t. 

PRODUCER: Is there a way to reform the church while also maintaining the hierarchy that exists that has its benefits?

SUSAN PAVLAK: No, there is no way for the church as it is currently constituted as sort of a Roman Empire model of hierarchy to reinvigorate itself without completely dismantling those structures.

 I think of the work that I do as hospice, hospice in the church, which doesn’t even know it’s dying. The people who have stock in what the church has effectively offered over many, many thousands of years.

The sweet basket of goodness that exists even in the dying hulk.. There are people inside who depend on that, and so I stay involved because of that sweetness, but I have no illusions about the fact that this carrier can no longer sustain that, and in fact must die before the other can be born into a new form. And I say that with love and sorrow.

In about 2000 to 2003, I started educating myself about restorative justice out of my own abuse situation because it was clear to me that the Catholic Church had gone blooey, and had a systemic power problem as evidenced by the burgeoning of our knowing about the clerical sexual abuse. So these came together for me and I was working with my own situation and I decided that there would be a way to have a non-adversarial solution.

And so I formed a small nonprofit and I was naive enough at the time to think that the church would say, “What a good idea.” How I see restorative justice is the repair of the inevitable breaches that occur in human relationships. And that restorative justice offers the opportunity to restore trustworthiness and wholeness because we are meant to be whole as in W-H-O-L-E. Right? And this is a reparative process of human relationship that allows us to be trustworthy together because we have accountability to each other, and we claim each other in that way. We say “You are worth being in a relationship with if we can repair.”

I’m Susan Pavlak. I am currently the president of the Gilead Project and co-creator with Gil Gustafson of the Uncommon Conversation: A Restorative Justice Process. I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota a lifelong Catholic  and attended Catholic elementary and high schools. 

GIL GUSTAFSON: My name is Gil. I grew up in the Twin Cities, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I attended a Catholic grade school and by ninth grade I was in a seminary as a boarding student. Went on to college, seminary located on the College of St. Thomas at that time, and then went on to graduate school at the St. Paul Seminary, born and bred Catholic. I was the kid in my family who took church seriously. Church for me has been family. It’s my second family.

SUSAN PAVLAK: In my junior year, having just turned 16 years old, as an incoming member of the student council leadership, we gathered with faculty and administration to present the student council.

The subject of the presentation was my role as a leader in the student council. What kind of leader you are at 16 is arguable, but I was wearing a black shirt with a very long collar because it was the seventies, and a jumper that I borrowed from my oldest sister. I felt pretty cool. When I exited the little theater, there was cookies and juice sort of around and people were mingling. A new teacher was there and came up to me and began talking to me about my presentation. She was cheerful and forthcoming and bright. One thing I remember is I had to keep backing up because she was much closer than Minnesotan’s usually stood. I kept backing up and eventually I was back against the wall.

She kept finding me in school and asking me to come and have lunch with her in her room. I had a book of poetry. Actually, I remember the poem I was reading- Babi Yar –  and I had it with my books in the student council room and she said, “Oh, you’re reading poetry?” And I said, “Yes.” And I think she asked me if I knew who EE Cummings was and I did. And I think she shared a poem with me like out of memory and I was very impressed because memorizing a poem is impressive. 

I had a lot of respect for teachers. I knew she was a former nun and I often thought I might want to be one. 

GIL GUSTAFSON: I was ordained a priest in 1977. At the age of 26 I was assigned to a parish in a suburb of St. Paul as an associate pastor. Two weeks after I arrived, the pastor had a severe heart attack and I was left to run this parish of a thousand families by myself. It’s still a wonderment to this day to me that they left me there alone and didn’t assign a more senior priest to be at least the administrator and I would be the associate pastor in that era in the seventies. 

We looked for about a 10 year window until we’d become a pastor. So the fact that I was running a parish, albeit not as the pastor at age 26, was a bit unusual at 26. You know, I’ve been in this system studying for priesthood for 12 years, so it’s like, oh, now I’m ordained and this is what I do, and I just put my head down and kept doing it.

The pastor returned around Christmas time. Now, I could have conversations with him once in a while as his recovery moved along, but essentially I was the only person there leading the ministry. I had some help, but in terms of leadership of the parish, it was me. I discovered I’d love to preach, and the feedback I got was that I was good at it.

In the hardest of moments, a death, suicide in a family, were joyous moments like weddings, baptisms, birth of children. It’s like I was given full entree to share people’s lives in the most important moments and I was in love with it, but it was exhausting. I just remember always doing something. It was like, okay, here I am, another couple to get ready for marriage. Oh, here we are, another couple that’s struggling with their marriage. Oh, here we are, I’m doing baptism preparation. So there was like a lot of things to do. A constant stream of things to do. 

I think when I was about 21, a senior in college, was when I realized that I had this sexual attraction to boys. I was getting older and these boys were staying about the same age, 12, 13, 14 years old, and I would feel like it’s okay. I’m doing all this hard work so it’s okay if I do this fantasy or if I masturbate to this fantasy.

SUSAN PAVLAK: After that presentation I was sought out by the new teacher who spent more and more time with me. She asked me if I would go out to supper with her. I said I could ask my parents if I could, and they thought that would be okay. I remember the restaurant we went to. I remember walking out and going to the parking lot and getting in the car and her saying to me, “Are we friends?” “Well,” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Can friends do anything with friends?” And I said, “Well, I guess, I think so.” And she laid down on top of me and kissed me.

I had not done any kissing up till then. She stopped kissing me when a restaurant worker came out to take the garbage out. Subsequent to that, drove me to her home. I said, “I can’t stay overnight. My folks won’t let me stay overnight.” And she said, “I’ll tell ’em it’s okay.” And I said, “I, I, I, I don’t think I should stay overnight.” But it was far away from where I was, another suburb, so it was not where I lived. So I went downstairs and she continued from where she’d left off in the car.

I remember laying there. I remember being scared. I remember, what the hell does this person think? They can touch me all over my body? I don’t understand what’s going on and I don’t understand why we’re not sleeping. I don’t understand why she’s kissing me, grabbing me, putting her hands in my pants. My understanding of what she was doing was sexual intercourse, which is, you know, something I’d read about. I didn’t hit her. I didn’t fight back. I didn’t do any of that. My brain was on fire.

I was incapable of consent at 16 in any meaningful way, let alone saying no to a person in a position of power who was grooming me for abuse and who was isolating me from my family and friends. I was not the agent with more power. I was terrified that I was in a situation that somehow I must be responsible for, but I had no control over that. Somehow, all along the way, I must have done something wrong. 

I got up from the bed and walked out into the hall and went into the bathroom and I found a razor, and then I thought, “Catholics can’t kill themselves.” And I went back into the bedroom.

GIL GUSTAFSON: I was on a field trip with a group of altar boys at the parish, and we went to a local amusement park and there was, oh, I don’t know, 20-25 boys, and probably two or three adults and myself as the chaperones. There was this one boy, he was one of the altar servers – these were all altar servers. He was kind of a clinger, a needy kid in a way. And so he was hanging out with me the whole day on one of the rides. We were in a car together or whatever, and I slipped my hand between his legs and he didn’t object to it.

So as the day went on, we’re on these various rides and more often than not they are two person rides. So I kept doing it and feeling his penis, and the fact that he didn’t seem to respond negatively said to me that he must be okay with it. I knew it was wrong to do that, that I was taking advantage. This kid had served mass. It was pretty clear he liked me, looked up to me. There’s a certain sense of danger too. Well, what if he reacts negatively? What if he tells one of the adults, oh my God, then what? You know, I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t be doing this. Afterwards, when I got home that night, it was like, oh my God, what have I done? This is awful.

He was probably like 13. I would’ve been about 29, maybe 30. The urge was constant. The urge to have sexual interaction with these young teenage boys. Either I would push against it or not, but the urge was constant. The acting on the urge was more sporadic. Some of it was dependent on availability, you know, when I’d be with a boy where I could give him a hug and maybe kind of sneak a squeeze in or touch his butt or whatever. There certainly wasn’t a month that went by that I didn’t have two, maybe three instances of some kind of inappropriate touch of boys.

What I knew was that this wasn’t right. I didn’t dilute myself into thinking, I’m teaching this boy about sex, or not even necessarily that this is something he likes.

Was I curious about it? Did I wanna learn about it? Well, no. I was mostly ashamed. It’s like, why am I having this sexual attraction? There wasn’t a lot of consciousness around this. There was a ton of suppression going on. I didn’t want it and I was trying to get rid of it and I was trying to push it down, which just kept feeding it. I felt awful that I was doing this and yet it just felt like I can’t stop.

SUSAN PAVLAK: I took on that, it was my fault. I can’t go to school. I feel sick all the time. I’m in school, I feel sick. I’m with my family, I feel sick. I’m with her, I feel sick. I feel crazy, and I feel trapped. I ran away to Omaha when I could no longer tolerate the circumstances I was in. I could not tell anyone what was happening to me. I had been told not to tell and my 16 year old brain got me on a bus to Omaha, which was the only kind of escape that I understood at that moment from all of the pressure surrounding me. 

Consent requires mature adulthood, equality of power differential, and the ability to escape the circumstances and consequences. A person who is in a power differential without maturity cannot initiate a relationship of consent with an adult. 

I couldn’t stay in Omaha because I didn’t have any more money. I didn’t have any clothes outside of my uniform, and I spent my last $8 on a pair of jeans. I called a friend and told her where I was. I told my friend I was scared to be so far away from home. My friend thought she was being helpful, so she told the teacher because she thought the teacher cared about me. She told my perpetrator. 

She was a cool teacher, because perpetrators are charismatic. The largest percentage of perpetrators by occupations are teachers  – largest. 

When you’re a kid, you don’t think right. She thought she was keeping me safer by telling that person than she would’ve to tell my Father who was a police lieutenant, and my mother. She thought I would be in trouble.

The teacher showed up in Omaha and knocked on the door of the motel. I had paid for two nights and said that she had been sent to bring me home. I felt resigned when she showed up and I knew I could never escape. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have a place to stay. I didn’t have any kind of support whatsoever. Nobody knew where I was. I hadn’t told my parents, and the reality in front of me was that I was never gonna get out of this.

She drove me home and stopped at her home on the way, even though I was expecting to go to my folks home. I fell asleep in the car. I thought we’d get home after supper is all I had decoded, but by that time my folks knew I was coming. I woke up and we were pulling into her driveway, not my folks’ driveway, and she said, “I just can’t drive anymore.” Took me into the same house, the same bedroom. I know that there was sexual activity that night. I know that it happened and I don’t remember it at the same time.

I laid in bed. I didn’t sleep. I was afraid. I knew I  couldn’t stop this. I knew that in her bathroom was a razor. I went into that bathroom. I took the razor and I cut my left wrist with it. I wanted out. I didn’t wanna kill myself, but I didn’t know how to get out. I was bleeding and she must have awakened and came to the bathroom door and knocked. I opened the door and was going to walk out of the bathroom and she looked in and she saw the razor and she saw my wrist and she said, “Give me your wrist.” and bound it up. The bandage was full of blood.

I had not shown my folks but my mother saw it. My mother’s a nurse. My mother put her arm around me and said, Susie, we’re gonna take you to the hospital because we’ve gotta do something to keep you. And rather than tell the secret, I ended up in the hospital in the psychiatric ward for the next two months.

GIL GUSTAFSON: In August of 1982, I received a letter from the Vicar General telling me we were going to meet, and giving me a date. Receiving a letter from the Vicar General was unusual because I was reporting to him that summer, because I was doing some administrative tasks for the diocese. So I was curious that I had this letter, and the Vicar General is like the second in command of a diocese. He’s like a chief operating officer in a sense, to use secular terms. So the fact that this person wanted to meet with me, I knew was a serious bit of business. Now, there were a couple of things that could be about, I was ready to go off to school and he was in charge of finances, so I thought, well, he might want to talk about the finances, or, I had been doing administration for an institution in the diocese, and I was reporting to him about that. And so I thought, well, maybe he’d want to check in about what I was doing with that before I’d be leaving town in a few weeks. And then in the back of my mind was, oh God, what if it’s about the sexual abuse I was perpetrating? 

So I walked into his office, I sit down, and the Vicar General hands to me a letter, and he says, “I’d like you to read this.” It was addressed to me and it was written by my primary victim. In it, he described some of the sexual behavior we had engaged in. I hand the letter back to the Vicar General, he pauses, and then he says, “Well, what do you have to say?” I could deny this. I’m a very believable, credible person, and this 15, 16 year old boy could be disbelieved. I could say, “Oh, no, no. I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

Am I gonna deny this letter or am I gonna acknowledge that what this boy is saying is true? I don’t want to keep running away from this. It’s time to turn and face what I have done, no matter what the consequences are. When I handed the letter back and he asked, what did I have to say? I said to him,
“It’s true.” And then he says, “You’re gonna need to talk to the archbishop about this, and there’ll be some steps we’ll have to take.” And I said, “Okay.” 

So I walked out of the chancery, got into my car, which was a tiny little Dodge Colt, a little tin can of a car, and I got on Interstate 94 heading east out of St. Paul, and was driving at 70 miles an hour. And I thought to myself, I could just turn this car into a bridge abutment and it would seem like an accident and I’d be dead. Because I thought everything that mattered to me, priesthood, that I love so much, was gonna be gone. I couldn’t imagine that anyone, my family or friends, anyone, could hear of this behavior and think of me as anything but a piece of shit. Think of me as anything but despicable. And so I thought, well, what if I just put an end to it?

I kept driving and driving and driving, and 15, 20 miles later I was at the Wisconsin border, and by now the, the impetus to kill myself had quieted. And I turned around and drove back to the place where I was living and tried to figure out what’s next.

SUSAN PAVLAK: Paranoid schizophrenia was the diagnosis that I received, particularly when I refused to tell them what had actually gone on. I kept the secret and I was visited in that psych ward, even though it was a locked psych ward and I could have no visitors. I was not telling the psychiatrist what had gone on. I did not tell my folks what had gone on. I couldn’t betray her. She had told me that terrible things would happen to her. She would go to prison and I didn’t wanna be responsible for her going to prison. My perpetrator and the woman she lived with, both who were former members of the order that owned the hospital, were able to visit and ask to see me.

I thought I was at fault that everything I had done had caused this to happen. I thought it was such a colossal failure that I just had to live with it. It would be such a disappointment to my parents that I had allowed this to happen and I was very interested in not disappointing my parents, which of course, I was a grave disappointment to my parents.

But that all got cleared up. I was released in December. I went home in January. I returned to school at my high school, but my perpetrator had gone on to teach at another high school. I enjoyed school. I loved being involved in student government. I was very interested in leadership kinds of activities, and I quit ’em all. 

When I got back to school everybody walked on eggshells because they didn’t know what I would do next, because of course they didn’t know what had happened in the first place. I lost the easy intimacy that I had with my siblings and my parents. It all got shattered. Everybody watched me like, when is she gonna take a razor to herself next? I had no joy. I had no energy. I had difficulty sleeping. I had intrusive thoughts. I was having a hard time getting up and going to class, and I just couldn’t put it together. You know, I couldn’t make it work.

GIL GUSTAFSON: Who I knew myself to be prior to August of 1982 was this talented up and coming bright boy, a priest who could do anything and proved it by running a parish. Two weeks ordained all that was gone, and now it’s, who the hell am I? 

In 1983, I pleaded guilty to a felony charge of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree. I was sentenced to six months in jail, served four and a half months with time off for good behavior and an early release of two weeks. 

What happened when I was sentenced was the media got hold of the story, and so it was in newspapers and on TV stations, the radio, et cetera. I became a very highly visible and publicized sex offender.

AUDIO CLIP: The crisis in truth is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership until you can have disciplined area procedures for bishops. Children in America and Catholic churches are not safed. Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we fail to take the necessary steps.

GIL GUSTAFSON: I am aware of four victims who ranged in age, roughly from 10 or 11 to 15 or 16. 

I also was mandated to engage in therapy, which was something I didn’t need the court to mandate me to do, because I really wanted to figure out why it was that I was sexually abusing these boys and figure out how I could stop. 

SUSAN PAVLAK: Upon graduation from high school I began drinking to help with what I now know as PTSD symptoms. Drinking became a problem for me. I wandered in the desert of drink and despair for about a year and a half being tremendously unsuccessful at many things, including family relationships and finding a suitable occupation, until I pulled myself together and I went back to college at the University of Minnesota at Morris where I was successful.

I believe it was late fall, kind of mid-afternoon, I was living in an apartment above a store in Morris, Minnesota, when I got a phone call. I picked up the phone and answered it. There was silence for a moment, and then I heard this, “Hello. I’m going to be coming to Morris tomorrow.” It took me a minute to recognize the voice, but my body probably recognized it before I did, because I remember sliding down the wall and sitting down on the floor. 

I said, “Coming here for what?” She went on to tell me something about she was in the area for work and wanted to see me. Finally, I said, “No.” I just said, “No.” She proceeded to tell me that we could go out to dinner, and I just said, “No, don’t call me again.” And then I hung up. The fear, the despair, the sorrow, the sense of being powerless really returned and dogged me to the extent that I decided that I had to go and see somebody in the counseling office probably within a week and a half of the phone call. 

I went to the counseling office and made an appointment and went to see a counselor and she said, “You were abused.” Really? My jaw kind of hit my knees and I just looked at her. It was for a moment that somebody thought it was somebody else’s fault, and I’ve been thinking it was my fault, but it was really thunder-ish, kind of in a good way. Oh no, that’s not how this story goes. This is how this story goes. You are not the author of this story anymore. I am. I was angry. I walked a fine line for a while and it freed me to start dealing with what had happened to me and calling it by name.

GIL GUSTAFSON:September of 1983, I began therapy. My therapist was incredibly gifted and talented. He had worked with sex offenders, so he knew the approach to therapy that would be effective, and we began weekly sessions and it was incredible. I got in touch with all sorts of dimensions of my family life that I didn’t realize. It impacted me. I had been sexually abused as a six-year-old by a neighbor boy. So, to unpack what that meant and how that had affected me, and to learn methodologies that would keep me from fixating on early adolescent boys, the diocese asked for kind of an evaluation of where was I at. And at that time he said it is unlikely that Gil will reoffend. 

I chose to continue with therapy for another 20 plus years, because the insights, the richness of it was absolutely wonderful. I’d had a non-emotive childhood, but one of the messages for my childhood is don’t get mad and certainly don’t tell anybody else about what happens in the family. Don’t air the family laundry. Those kinds of messages, however they were inputted to me, stayed in me.

The church kind of does the same thing to its clergy. You don’t air the dirty laundry and you don’t get mad. So I do believe the institution does have a role in confining the priest’s ability to be fully human. What I didn’t realize, and it came out of my family of origin story, was I had an enormous amount of anger within me that I had never learned to express. And one of the big breakthroughs was him helping me get in touch with that feeling and figure out a way to express it that would be healthy. 

And one of the breakthrough moments had two parts to it. My boss, who was of course like a father figure, because he was a priest to me, an old senior priest. And he said something one day in a public setting that was disparaging of me and I was furious. And so my therapist said, “Work with a journal and write about it and see what happens.” So I am literally sitting in my residence with a pad of paper in front of me trying to describe what I’m feeling. And so I went to the physical. I’m breathing heavily. I’m red in the face, I’m, boom, boom, all these little descriptors. I said, “Oh my God, I’m angry.” I literally had to observe data inside me to claim anger. That’s how much anger was sidelined in my upbringing. So, it was that sort of an insight that was huge to me to discover that it’s an axiom, but a very true one. 

All sexual offenses are offenses of rage, expressions of rage. Rape isn’t about sex, violence, power over rage, and so it is with child molestation. Largely, it is sexual in the sense that sexual organs are involved. Misplaced sexual desire is interwoven in this. I’m not saying there isn’t a sexual component to sexual abuse, but the engine of it is unresolved. Rage hurt, and it seeks a way to be, not obliterated, but to be met. The action is a way to meet that impetus inside as a priest. The environment of this hierarchical system, which gives me a lot of power over it, also confines my ability to be fully human.

SUSAN PAVLAK: There has to be redemption after horror. There has to be a way to make peace. There has to be a way to repair. I realized that the hatred and anger and rage I felt would keep me not only stuck, but it would keep me in polarized positions that were incompatible with my values and my recovery from alcoholism. I started reading the Bible for one. I was reading about grief and sorrow and redemption and hope. I really started thinking about who I would become if I took the privileged position of victim and installed the rage that I felt as part of my permanent operating system, and I did not wanna end up at this age who that person was then, because I was filled with rage. So, I had to reconcile that the way toward reconciliation is restoration. The only way for me to reconcile with my faith and the people I loved in that faith tradition was to accept that there had to be a restorative process that could get there, and that I would spend my time restoring rather than tearing down.

GIL GUSTAFSON: In the fall of 1983 I completed my jail time, so now I was on probation. I was working in an administrative role in the archdiocese in one of the institutions. So it was a good use of my skills, but it wasn’t church. I very badly wanted to continue to do what I had said earlier about what I’m most truly myself at, which is liturgy to preside. It was not at all feasible. I couldn’t go back to parish work because parish work would involve the presence of children, and that was inappropriate. And I and my therapist were very clear that that would not be good for me. So I asked the diocese if there was a different form of liturgical ministry I could engage in, and they said, “Well, there’s a monastery of sisters who need a chaplain.” And I said, “Well, that’d be great.”

It was a lovely process of kind of an audition that I went through with them, and by early 1984 they accepted me as their chaplain. At that point, I felt I needed to have a conversation with the sisters about my background, so we arranged it one afternoon. I laid out the abusive behavior and all this, and sisters listened very quietly and very patiently and kindly. I told them my story, and of course it had been in the press, so they had read it, but I wanted to put it in my words and put it out there, and I did that. 

I don’t remember a lot of the questions, but they were so attentive to what I was saying. When all was done, the sisters left to go back into their residence, their cloister, and one of the sisters stopped me and said, “Gil, thank you so much for sharing your stories so honestly, so completely. You may look at us at a bunch of holy women, and we are, but we all have our stories too.” And there was this very clear sense of me too. We’re not perfect. We have our flaws too. 

SUSAN PAVLAK: Here’s the thing about the Roman Catholic Church, whether it’s the female version or the male version or anything connected with the circus, they have a corner on contemptuous and dismiss it because it’s a monarchical system, and you are a peasant and a surf come looking for favors, and they can tell you to go to hell.

In the process of seeking understanding and accountability from my perpetrator I went to the archdiocese, who was quite helpful. I went to the order that had housed and enabled my perpetrator, and I went to the high school administration from the time I was in high school. The response was uniformly dismissive, often contemptuous, really wholly unproductive and negative, except for Kevin McDonough. 

Reverend Kevin McDonough was Vicar General of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minneapolis. I approached him late in the nineties when I started trying to get some satisfaction for the abuse that had been perpetrated by a member of an order in the Archdiocese. He’s a right hand man to the bishop. He was very helpful to me and arranged a meeting with my perpetrator. He said, “Do you wanna meet with this person?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” 

GIL GUSTAFSON: One day the rectory phone rings. This is before cell phones and before caller ID, and so it could be for me, it could be for somebody else. So I pick it up and I say, “Hello, St. Peters.” And on the other end is my primary victim. What he said was, “I wanna talk with you, but I want to get together with you and I want you to see me.” In the course of that conversation, he said, “I forgive you.” 

“No, I’m sorry. This is my fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.” That’s the message I would’ve liked to have been able to give him. I was not able to meet with my primary victim because of the terms of my probation. I had talked with my probation officer who said, “No, there’s no way you’re gonna have that meeting.”

In the fall of 1989. I was invited to speak at an ecumenical conference of church officials about how to respond to sexual abuse. A young man who had been abused by an Episcopalian priest spoke first and I was scheduled to speak immediately after. So he finished and then it was my turn to speak. I walked up to the podium and I thought, “Oh God, these folks have just heard this incredibly painful story. You know, here’s the guy that causes that kind of pain, gonna talk.”

The young man took his place kind of right in front of the podium, so I’m staring right at him as I’m giving my account, my talk. And I remember speaking directly to him and saying that I am sorry he had been abused, as one who had abused boys myself. I was sorry that he had been abused and that I wanted him to know that it had never been his fault.

There are moments when you’re speaking, giving a talk or preaching when the room gets very quiet and you can almost hear or feel people listening, and that’s what was happening when I apologized to this young man for the pain that had been caused to him. Almost suddenly the room was really dialed in. 

When I was sexually acting out, when I was abusing boys, I would have these moments of being afraid of what happens if somebody finds out I’m doing this? I was afraid of consequences, like being thrown out of  priesthood, perhaps having to deal with the police and the court system, and then I’d creep up on my fear about, oh my God, what if I go to jail? What if this gets in the press and then everybody knows? 

I haven’t been thrown out of priesthood, but the other consequences all came true and they were painful, but each and everyone had a gift. Having a court of law judge my behavior was liberating. While it was painful to be in jail, it too became a gift. A penalty was imposed and I fulfilled that penalty. Well, I’m sure there are some for whom I represent despicable behavior and they would wish I didn’t exist. I discovered that there were quite a number of people in my life who could hear this about me and still love me, still stay in relationship with me.

I did this, it is my fault. It’s nobody’s fault but mine. I misused my position of power to get my needs met. I still must accept responsibility. And once we do that, accept our own personal responsibility, you can say, “Okay, now I’ve gotta change.” Holding people responsible and getting them to understand what it is that got them there, or the way they are, that’s the place of change.  Don’t spare your offenders their consequences. Don’t spare the consequences, you’re doing your offender no favors. The consequences can be the path for them to heal and become whole. 

So I finished and I could tell people were really hearing me and there was applause and it was time for lunch. So, I got off the podium and the young man was still standing there, and some people were chatting with him and some people were chatting with me, and he turned to me and he said, “Thank you for what you said. Would it be okay if we hugged?” And we did. 

SUSAN PAVLAK: The meeting was between Kevin McDonough, my perpetrator, and me. I remember the whole week before the meeting, I worried, I fretted, I didn’t sleep, I had nightmares -I wondered if I was gonna quit on myself. 

I chose my clothing. I wore my best power suit from my professional life. I made a copy with big enough print and some space between so I could read what I had to say, because I knew it was gonna be very difficult to do, and so I knew I’d have to read it. 

She walked into the room with a winter coat on. Kevin sat her down across the other side of the table and he sat at the head of the table. He said, “Then Susan is gonna talk about whatever she has to say to you.” And then I went ahead and I spoke. I was shaky. I didn’t break down. I didn’t cry. It wasn’t really being taken in, it was sort of being survived, like she was just showing up but not really there. Eventually she said, “I’m sorry that this happened to you.” which I thought was an odd way to put it because she wasn’t taking any responsibility. She had no sorrow that I know of.

What I realized that had been taken from me was the agency to determine the trajectory of my own young life and my youth was stolen. Restorative justice requires at some point an encounter that is meaningful, and I couldn’t get people to the table, and so I was mad. I would rant and rave in my head or to friends about how unfair and how unjust all of this was. Why should I not do some kind of an expose of what had happened? Go public with what they did. I was gonna go sue em. I was gonna, you know, just a lot of loose talk. I would rather be free. I would rather not drag those chains behind me anymore. Forgiveness is about me, it’s not about her. Forgiveness is about my choices, and I have forgiven and forgiven and forgiven that same person many time. Casting her out, or anyone out of a community, is like taking away their opportunity to get better. It’s important to me that we all have the opportunity to get better. There has to be a road back from even that kind of terrible behavior. There has to be light for them to come back toward or why come back? Why change?

I told her that forgiveness was freedom for me and that I forgave her. She did not look up. It felt empty, but less empty than I had been. Not to be able to say it was kind of terrifying to say it because I’m that scared16-year-old again, but I did it and I felt glad that I had done it.

GIL GUSTAFSON: It was a Saturday in June of 2002. It was near a little lake in St. Paul, for some reason. I got in my car and I turned on the radio. Well, I think they made some reference about the bishop’s meeting in Dallas and that they had proclaimed a zero tolerance policy in the draft of the charter for the protection of children and young people.

AUDIO CLIP: Our committee has stated that we are confronted by a crisis without precedent in our times. They should have never, never, never put them in another parish, but they did many of them time and again. That’s the real evil. We must move forward. We must put an end to this. We cannot have Dallas two and Dallas three and Dallas four. This is a defining moment for us to declare our resolve once and for all, to put a plan in place and to commit ourselves to that plan so as to root out a cancer in our church.

GIL GUSTAFSON: And I thought, “I’m done. That’s it.”

The conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States met in Dallas to craft a response, national policy around the sexual abuse of children, and it was called the charter for the protection of children and young people at the time that it came out. I was 20 years into my recovery and I had not recommitted in 20 years and felt confident I wouldn’t, but the zero tolerance policy would make no exception for a person.

In my situation, I believe I called the sister who was in charge of the community and made some reference to the bishop’s meeting in Dallas, and I said, “I think this Sunday would be the last time I would say mass.” I said, “What I would like to do is I wanna preach one more time.” I preached and then after communion, I got up and said, “My presumption is that this will be my last Sunday with you because of the Dallas Charter.” By then, of course, I was all choked up and I just said, “It’s been such a gift for me to be able to be here with you.” I functioned as a priest for 25 years. I never said a public mass again.

When I look back over my years, it was the center part of my life. I had a parish ministry gone as a rightful consequence of my bad behavior  and I was given this second chance to be able to be a pastor of sorts to this community of sisters who believed so deeply and understood what their brokenness was. And they said to me, “Another broken human being, a very publicly broken, sinful man. We want you to lead us in prayer.” In the beginning, I pushed back against it and said, “This isn’t right. This isn’t fair. I’ve done all you’ve asked me to do.” The structure of my life as a priest in the church helps to guarantee safety and it felt like it was a one size fits all solution by the bishops.

Doesn’t my hard work in therapy and living out a safe life, doesn’t that count for anything? It was the hardest consequence I’ve ever faced. That was far more painful to me than jail time or having my name in the press or anything else. It’s the deepest grief of my life. 

Over time, I’ve come to be able to say that this is another consequence of my behavior. If I hadn’t sexually abused the boys, none of this would’ve happened.

SUSAN PAVLAK: My history of abuse informs my collaboration with Gil. In many ways, the most important is that Gil and I carry the roles of the entirety of the Catholic church’s sexual abuse crisis in our person. The aim of our work together, for me, is restoration and wholeness, and in our persons we are archetypes of what it looks like not only to be damaged and do great damage, but to restore and repair that damage. In this way, we repair by our collaboration or allow possibilities for repair to flow from our collaboration, not just what we do, but who we are. It was the beginning of uncommon conversation, which is our deal now,

The first time I knew who Gil Gustavson was, he introduced himself to me after this small group workshop at a conference that The Vocari Group I had participated in with three proxy sex offenders and two other women who were victimized. It was a restorative justice program with the Department of Corrections for adjudicated sex offenders who were in a diversion program. They were not yet sentenced and they were diverted into this process. I remember he said that he was very interested in what we had done and was really grateful for us having been willing to do that because so few people would be interested in sitting with people who would offend  maybe a year or two later.

Gil says 2011, I believe that’s correct. I’ll take his word for it. A woman who had been in that Vocari, Christine. Christine directed the restorative justice program through the Department of Corrections for the State of Minnesota. She had reached out to Gil and asked him to present and reached out to me and asked me to present for the Department of Corrections, and wanted us to meet so that we would both be presenting so that there would be people – think of it as two sides to the story – so that the people in the Department of Corrections would have a clearer idea about the kinds of things that people who were in the restorative justice program in the prisons would do. So it’s training for their employees. And I said, “Well, I’d be happy to meet him and talk with him and decide after that.” 

So Christine, Gi,l and I met at The Keys Restaurant in St. Paul. We had lunch and I told Gil that I wanted to know everything he’d ever done and have his bonafide, his vitae, his rap sheet. And I said, “And I’m gonna verify all this. And if you’ve lied to me I’ll break your legs.” I said, “And then we’ll see what we can come up with together once I’m satisfied.” I was clearly satisfied because we got together and I told him what I wanted to do, and he was open to it  based on what he’d seen in The Vocari presentation. 

There’s this bipolar nature to victim and perpetrator or persons who’ve harmed versus persons who’ve been harmed. And I said, “And we can do a new thing.” So I proposed that to Gil and we worked on that together. Presenting together, not individually. And so we wrote up our stories, practiced, and we sat next to each other in front of these folks and presented. It was surprising to people. Some were a little hostile to it because they wanted the certainty of people being in one role and the other, and this begins to blur the lines about what is possible. 

PRODUCER: How could you tell that people were hostile?

SUSAN PAVLAK: Well, there was a question period. One of the women was visibly angry and asked a question about how I could sit there with him. So I told her “I can sit here with him because I’ve done a lot of my work around all of this. He’s been through the system and he’s paid what we asked him as a society to pay. And he is doing work to try and make amends to the world for it. And I can get behind that. Both as a matter of faith and religion and as a matter of public policy.”

PRODUCER: Did she seem satisfied? 

SUSAN PAVLAK: No, but I don’t think that was about us. I think that was about whatever history she brought to the question. It was an ongoing process, but I feel blessed. I think we’re kind of unique. We joke about neither one of us can quit because there’s not another one of us who’s available to do it. We are hen’s teeth in that you will not find this combination of people working together in this way. And we thought we had a gift to offer in this process, but it was a gift that was not welcomed and was rejected mostly, if not totally by our local church, at least to a tolerable human degree. 

GIL GUSTAFSON: When we proposed uncommon conversation in 2012, we let the diocese know we were doing it. Kevin McDonough, that facilitated Susan’s meeting with her perpetrator, was still the Vicar General at the time and Archbishop Flynn was still the archbishop. Informing them wasn’t seeking permission, it was to be transparent. We wanted them to know what we were doing. 

We went ahead and did our process. We had invited 65 people, thereabouts, got feedback from them that we very carefully created an evaluation from questions we had asked them to offer us evaluative information. We had a lovely report and we sent the report to the archdiocese and never heard a word. I don’t remember ever hearing a word.

SUSAN PAVLAK: You never find one kind of abuse alone, whether it’s in a family or a church, and this is a human problem. The church is an exemplar of this problem as an institution trying to shut everybody down and shut ’em up so that the challenge becomes minimized or extinguished. That is a hallmark of every corruption ever, in every system, ever. And there are so many ways you can be bad in the church, this and others. If you’re not this, but you’re this, you’re bad. And all of those components are part of all of us. When we have to cut those pieces off, they don’t go away. They go underground and they find a way of expression, but they don’t find a way of expression that’s healthy. They find a way of expression that’s destructive of health. To the individual, the person, and the community, it’s a secret, and the more secret it is, the more unhealthy it is.

GIL GUSTAFSON: Institutions’ first priority is to preserve the institution. The mission does matter. I’m not denigrating the fact that they have a mission and genuinely wish to accomplish it, but as an institution  their first priority is to continue to exist. So I think opening a door of a very painful, shameful – and never underestimate the power of shame – they are ashamed of the behavior of the likes of me, and they’re afraid. My personal opinion is they were just afraid to open that door. We haven’t given up on the church. They may have given up on us, but we have not given up on them. 

SUSAN PAVLAK: We get together every couple of weeks. 

GIL GUSTAFSON: Yeah. I don’t, I don’t think it goes much beyond the couple of weeks for us.

SUSAN PAVLAK: I mean, right. We have breakfast at the same local restaurant and we live roughly in the same neighborhoods.

GIL GUSTAFSON: Yeah. A couple of miles apart.

SUSAN PAVLAK: A couple of miles apart.

GIL GUSTAFSON: I’ll share things with you that I see on the internet you share things with with me. 

SUSAN PAVLAK: Now, we’d email a lot, so there’s a lot of email going on. 

GIL GUSTAFSON:Yeah, yeah. 

SUSAN PAVLAK: Werner Erhard says, “A transformed individual is one who can tell the truth. A transformed environment is one in which the truth can be told.” We are attempting to tell the truth because we are transformed individuals or in the process of transformation, and would like transformation for our beloved church and society, our beloved world. So the truth has to be told. That’s what recovery does for you, whether it’s alcohol or anything else. Recovery allows you to have the contempt that you experienced not turn into something that you use against other people, because you can’t cut the people of God in two. Oh my God. 

GIL GUSTAFSON: Lord, love us.

SUSAN PAVLAK: This is some of the hardest work I ever do.

GIL GUSTAFSON: It’s never easy. 




STEPHANIE LEPP: Susan Pavlak lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she’s retired. She spends her time with her family and her parish, and on working to bring restorative justice to clergy’s sexual abuse. She still has to forgive and re-forgive her abuser, but she’s many decades sober and says her life is beautiful. 

Gil Gustafson lives just a couple miles away from Susan. He was forced into early retirement by renewed publicity of his story in 2013, so he spends most of his time collaborating with Susan and volunteering on issues he cares about, including restoring the right to vote and removing barriers to employment for people with felonies. Gil is confident he would never abuse again, but he still has the attraction. so he’s careful about how he navigates proximity to children and is almost always in the company of people who know his story.