Minnesota Public Radio’s Madeleine Baran is doing an incredible job of reporting on the roots of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’s current clerical sex abuse scandal. I was stunned to discover from her reporting that the present-day scandals there have their roots in the Diocese of Lafayette, La.
She got her hands on some unsealed court records and went down to south Louisiana to talk to people who knew former Minneapolis bishop Harry Flynn when he was made a bishop and sent to Lafayette to clean up the mess left behind by his predecessor, who allowed the convicted child molester Fr. Gilbert Gauthe stay in ministry, despite knowing that he was raping boys. Bishop Flynn came to town with an agenda to heal the Church. When he left town years later, his reputation as a caring bishop who went the extra mile to rebuild the diocese and to help the families of the abused boys carried him to Minneapolis. Later, after Boston broke big, he became the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ point man on dealing with the sex abuse scandal. Who better than Harry Flynn, right?
Except, reports Baran, everything people thought they knew about Archbishop Flynn was a lie. Excerpts:
Another Catholic attorney who had represented victims, Anthony Fontana, was frustrated in his efforts to get the bishop’s attention. “There’s another problem you need to know about,” he told Flynn. A Lafayette priest named Gilbert Dutel had been accused of coercing young adult men into having sex.
Flynn offered a calm reply. He explained that Dutel was cured and that, regardless, he needed to keep him in ministry because of the priest shortage.
Fontana said that in a sworn affidavit that was part of the 1990s lawsuit. More:
The files do not support the claim that Flynn healed the diocese. They also contain no suggestion that Flynn called police about priests accused of sexually assaulting children. Hundreds of documents reveal that Flynn’s diocese used many of the same aggressive legal tactics that he would later employ in the Twin Cities.
Attorneys hired by the diocese argued that victims waited too long to come forward and that the public didn’t need to know the names of accused priests. The diocese fought efforts by victims to seek compensation from the church and focused on keeping the scandal as private as possible, which meant that fewer victims came forward to sue.
In the case of Dutel, the documents show, the allegations weren’t limited to young adults. Dutel had also been accused of sexually abusing a child. In an interview with a lawyer in 1992, the alleged victim said Dutel had abused him in the 1970s, starting when he was 9 years old.
Still, Flynn kept Dutel in ministry. No records exist of any reports to police.
Dutel, 69, now serves as the pastor of St. Edmond Catholic Church in Lafayette. Over the 22 years since his accuser came forward, Dutel has worked in elementary and high schools and served in several parishes. There’s even a playground named after him.
Reached last week, Dutel denied the allegations and declined to say whether Flynn had informed him of the complaints: “I have a sense that I am not sure that I should be talking to you, because I don’t know where this information is coming from.” He declined an offer from MPR News to send him the documents for his review.
To this very day, Fr. Dutel is a pastor in the diocese, despite the Charter, despite all the promises.
Baran went to talk to the Gauthe victim families in the diocese. They remember Bishop Flynn as more interested in appearing to care about what had been done to their sons than actually caring. Wayne Sagrera, father of three — three! — boys molested by Fr. Gauthe, was one of the ones who met with him, but didn’t get anywhere. More:
Wayne Sagrera hadn’t given up on Flynn, though, and wondered if it would be better to meet with him alone. In several private meetings, he pleaded with Flynn to reach out to the parishes where Gauthe had served to find other victims and offer them counseling.
He told the new bishop that Gauthe had acknowledged abusing hundreds of children, but that only a few dozen had come forward. He worried about the other kids, particularly because many of the parents were in denial about what had happened.
Flynn’s response startled him. Flynn admitted that the church had been wrong to keep Gauthe in ministry and that it had mishandled the entire situation. But, he explained, there was nothing he could do.
“He used the excuse that he made a vow to protect the church,” Wayne Sagrera recalled. “He made it very plain that the church came first…On numerous occasions he admitted they were at fault, but he would not come forward and do anything about it.”
Wayne was furious. “I guess maybe I’m a little bit simple a human being, but to me your responsibility lies with your parishioners, not with the church,” he said.
In that grieving, angry father’s quote is one of the core issues of this thing: clericalism. Flynn thought that “the Church” was the institution and the hierarchy, and so, apparently, does Wayne Sagrera. If Baran’s account is accurate, the Sagrera family, as well as the families of so many other molested kids, were just collateral damage for the sake of maintaining a false front for the Church, and advancing Harry Flynn’s career.
Read the whole thing. And you might want to read Chapter 2, where Baran reports on how Flynn’s predecessor in Minneapolis, Archbishop John Roach, covered for some horrible characters, including caring for a convicted pedophile named Fr. Gil Gustafson, who molested a boy named Brian Herrity. Abp Roach and his clerical leadership team worked out ways to make sure Fr. Gustafson was taken care of, including, according to documents, making an arrangement to quietly get disability payments to Gustafson under an arrangement that the archdiocesan chancellor, Fr. Kevin McDonough, wrote ”provided both of our institutions with a certain ‘deniability,’ so that we could use [Gustafson's] gifts without having to confront the concerns and even prejudice in the minds of some.” From Baran’s narrative:
Meanwhile, the Herrity family struggled. Brian’s classmates at Hill-Murray High School ridiculed him for having sex with a priest. The bullying got so bad that he transferred to a public school. The family stopped attending Mass.
Brian turned to drugs and alcohol and sought comfort in anonymous sexual encounters with men. In his mid-20s, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
“I watched my son, who was a loving little boy who used to get on my lap and watch football and giggle and just very innocent, go from that to something I couldn’t even explain,” Jeff Herrity said in a recent interview. “They murdered my child.”
When Brian fell ill, he moved back into his old bedroom and made a tape recording. “Hi, my name is Brian Herrity and the reason why I’m making this tape is because I know I’m dying of AIDS,” he said softly into the microphone. “And I feel a little awkward doing this but I hope that in the future, whoever happens to come across this tape and maybe if God puts this tape in your life for a reason that it will have some impact on somebody else’s life.”
He continued, “At 14 years old, well, I’d seen a lot of life. I’d been sexually abused by a Catholic priest for five years…torn up in court systems, left feeling even lonelier than I’d started.”
It wasn’t until Nov. 30, 1994 — more than a decade after Gustafson’s conviction — that Roach agreed to meet with Brian.
The archbishop described the meeting in a memo. “The principal thing that he is concerned about is that he feels that his life could have taken a different turn had he not been abused, and he wanted to say that. I listened to that and I think we had a good conversation.
“My guess is that that closes the chapter on this. His is a very sad story.”
Brian Herrity died the following year. He was 28.
How do parents trust after all this? Mind you, the Gauthe and Herrity cases happened a couple of decades ago, but the only reason it’s in the news now is that Catholics in Minneapolis today, right this second, are dealing with the ongoing legacies of Roach — who was very close to Cardinal Bernardin — and Flynn and now, Archbishop Nienstedt.
What’s it going to take to change all this? What? More happy talk and assurances from the hierarchy that All Is Well, and the Bad Years Are Behind Us?
And lest anybody think I’m only talking about the Catholic Church, I’m not. Staying a faithful Christian has meant having to take refuge in a tower of mistrust of institutional religion. It may not be the right thing to do, but you read these Baran stories, and you realize that these are not uncommon, and that it’s not just the Catholic Church (see here and here for how an Orthodox hierarchy moved to protect priests, with little thought for the laity).
The other day I was talking with a friend about the TV series The Wire. He said that the big lesson of The Wire is that within any institution — he mentioned the police department, political bureaucracies, and educational bureaucracies — corruption sets in when individuals within that institution start to identify good and evil with what is perceived to be in the institution’s best interest. The church is no different. The problem is that the stakes are so much higher when we are talking about people’s souls. No wonder Dante, in Canto XXI of Paradiso, depicted the rage of St. Peter Damian and the other saints in heaven howling against corruption in the Church as being louder than thunder.