False Statements Under Oath: One More Sin in the Catholic Church’s Abuse Scandals

During a deposition in April 2014, Archbishop John Nienstedt (below) of Saint Paul and Minneapolis testified to his lack of knowledge concerning a priest’s prior conviction of child abuse, saying he had only discovered that sordid history “during the last six months” and that he had never known much about the abuser’s past.

The evidence suggests otherwise.

Parishioner LaLonne Murphy was able to provide copies of letters she sent to Nienstedt more than six years ago, in which she detailed the history of Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, a convicted pedophile, and expressed her dismay that such a man continued to work as a parish consultant. Murphy became aware of Gustafson’s continuing involvement in Catholic affairs when she encountered him at a Florida church summit (which she was likely attending in her capacity as a director of liturgy and music for her own parish community).

In her original letter, Murphy — who herself carries memories of priestly sexual abuse from her youth, which she disclosed to Nienstedt in a subsequent letter — wrote:

From the public documents I have seen, [Gustafson] spent four and a half months in jail, completed probation, and paid a $40 fine. The people he abused and their families will never be able to fully recover. What he took from them has no time frame and no financial amount.

Set aside, for the moment, the absurdly light punishment for a man who abused his position of trust to sexually violate children in at least four separate cases. The point here is that Nienstedt had far more knowledge about Gustafson — specifically about his criminal past, including the fact that he was sentenced and jailed — than he claimed in his deposition, and had it years sooner than his testimony indicated. And we need not take it on faith that Murphy’s letter is authentic, or that Nienstedt received it, because we also have a copy of his official response.

(Say, wasn’t there something in the Ten Commandments about bearing false witness? Or did we throw that one out with the bit about mixed fibers?)

Nienstedt stands by his original testimony, insisting that he was unable to remember the information from Murphy’s letter. In a statement, Nienstedt said:

I was as accurate as possible in my April 2014 deposition, recalling details from years past to the best of my ability… While I tried to remember details of Gilbert Gustafson’s status during my four-hour deposition, I was not able immediately to recall specific details or that I had received correspondence from Ms. Murphy six years earlier. I receive thousands of letters every year.

As far as Ms. Murphy is concerned, that’s simply not good enough. She says he has lost moral credibility and should be removed from his position by the Vatican. In her opinion:

Either he chose not to tell the truth in his deposition or he didn’t remember. And I think each are morally questionable. To not remember means he didn’t care. It didn’t have enough of his attention that he didn’t have it as a priority of something that he would have to make note of.

Those inclined to give Nienstedt the benefit of the doubt, take note: this is the second instance in which his deposition has been called into question. In August of this year, documents came to light concerning another priest, the Rev. Kenneth LaVan, who was accused of sexual assault in the 1980s but remained in active ministry. Nienstedt insists that he acted as soon as he learned of LaVan’s past, but several documents indicate that Nienstedt was aware of the accusations well before LaVan’s eventual departure from ministry in 2013.

The LaVan documents also indicate a friendly social relationship between the two men, which could explain Nienstedt’s willingness to turn a blind eye. Here we find another parallel with the Gustafson case: Murphy’s 2008 letter points out the cunning way Gustafson netted his consulting position by connecting through a family member of his legal representation. Again and again, we glimpse the old boys’ network that sacrifices Catholic children’s safety for the sake of personal relationships between priests.

After all, what’s a couple of altar boys between friends, right?

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