ST. PAUL, Minn. - A victim of sex abuse and a priest convicted of child molestation have formed an alliance with a noble goal: to create a hub of resources for victims of sexual abuse and those fighting to stop it.
The pair is raising funds and hope to buy the Chancery building of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which has an assessed value of about $6 million.
The building, in the shadow of the St. Paul Cathedral on Summit Avenue, is the administrative epicenter for the Roman Catholic archdiocese. The archdiocese placed the building on the market, along with other properties, as part of its bankruptcy process.
Susan Pavlak and Gil Gustafson envision a rebirth of the Chancery as a Christian-based center for “all those affected by sexual abuse.” The building would become home to the Gilead Project, which they describe as an effort to address the systemic change needed to help victims and people of faith heal from the sex abuse crisis, and also to prevent abuse.
The programming would include: training for churches, clergy or child-protection professionals; research grants and development of publications.
“The Gilead Project, and thus the center as an instrument of the project, is really aimed at transformation of individuals and systems so that we can have a safe and healthy society,” Gustafson said in an interview Friday.
Pavlak, who was molested as a teen by a former nun at a Catholic high school, and Gustafson, convicted in the 1980s for sexual misconduct involving a minor, met years ago through a restorative justice program and began to collaborate on their program called Uncommon Conversations. Both had done previous work with groups focused on sex abuse.
The Gilead Project is a natural follow-up to Uncommon Conversations, panel discussions centered on how the clergy sex-abuse crisis has affected the Catholic community, Pavlak said.
“It is a bold choice for us to work together,” Gustafson said. “It goes against the tendency to keep us in different camps. But our desire is to effectively work together, integrating our two unique perspectives to create a new approach.”
Their partnership has come under fire amid recent media attention, as some denounce Gustafson’s involvement in what some reports have dubbed a “healing center” and call for donors to withhold donations.
“We never said it was a healing center,” Pavlak said. “Healing is an inside job. It is a resource center.”
While the center would not be a place for those seeking therapy, it could be a space for community gatherings or conversations on the topic, Pavlak said.
The local arm of SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) issued a statement Thursday saying, “Just like an alcoholic shouldn’t seek a brewery job, a predator shouldn’t seek a position of power over others.”
Those assertions are misconceived, Pavlak said. Gustafson is a co-creator of the idea for the Gilead Project and is helping to promote it, but will not have a management position or direct involvement with victims, she said.
Frank Meuers, leader of the southern Minnesota chapter of SNAP, said his statements on the issue were perhaps borne of misinformation or a lack of information.
“His motivation might be as pure as the driven snow, but it sounds awfully suspect to me,” Meuers said. “I don’t think at this point there’s any clarity at all as to what exactly they’re setting up. And it’s been unclear what role he’s going to take. … Most people I know would never go into a facility that is run by a former abuser.”
Gustafson defends his role in the Gilead Project, saying he has always accepted responsibility for his actions and has “worked very hard for 30 years” to address his past actions.
“My motive to be involved is to make amends,” he said.
Gustafson has been out of active ministry since 2002, when the archdiocese stripped him of his official ministerial faculties after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ adopted of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
He met Pavlak at a Minnesota chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers conference. They met again years later while participating in a Minnesota Department of Corrections restorative justice program, an effort to promote victim healing and offender accountability. And in 2012, they joined to launch Uncommon Conversations.
The Gilead Project “is an opportunity for me to say, how can I use what I’ve learned to help create a better response to sexual abuse?” Gustafson said.
An expert in sexuality says that sex offenders are the pariahs of society.
“What we believe about the long-term risk of sex offenders is, quite frankly, just wrong,” said Dr. Michael Miner, a University of Minnesota Medical School professor and research director for its program for human sexuality.
He said people believe the “common myth” that perpetrators can never be reformed and are at great risk to re-offend.
“There are a variety of different databases and studies over last 20 years and they routinely find that lowest recidivist crime is murder and the second lowest is sex offenses,” said Miner. “It goes against everything we think we know. There is this idea that once a sex offender, always a sex offender, and that they don’t age out.”
Those assumptions perhaps caused the reactions people have had to news that Gustafson is working to promote a resource center to address the crime he committed.
But Gustafson’s motivations may be based on a desire to give back and make amends, Miner said.
“Sometimes we need to take people at face value,” Miner said. “If he says that’s what his goal is, maybe we need to give him an opportunity to show whether he is truly repentant and is truly trying to give back. I don’t think that’s impossible.
In addition to Pavlak and Gustafson, a 10-person steering committee has been working on the Gilead Project idea since mid-July. The members include a parish administrator, a therapist with expertise in sexual abuse, a retired church employee, a health care policy expert, a former priest and an established researcher/author on the subject of child sex abuse, Pavlak said.
Pavlak calls herself the president of the Gilead Project, a registered nonprofit corporation that gets its name from an American spiritual song containing the lyrics “There is a balm in Gilead … To cure a sin-sick soul.”
The organization’s bidding price for the Chancery building isn’t rock bottom, Pavlak said, but is less than the asking price. She said it’s “in the millions,” but didn’t say how much they’ve raised so far. The recent negative reactions have hindered fundraising, she said.
The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy in January, citing an operating deficit and pending clergy sex abuse lawsuits.
Five of its properties, with a combined assessed value of more than $10 million, were placed on the real estate market. At last check, none had sold. Negotiations and bids are confidential, an archdiocese spokesman said.
Pavlak and Gustafson said their efforts to grow the Gilead Project will not end if the Chancery deal falls through.
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