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Onetime priest crusades for abuse victims suing Catholic Church
Patrick Wall as a seminarian and junior monk at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota in the late 1980s.
June 19th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Onetime priest crusades for abuse victims suing Catholic Church

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - As a young man studying for the priesthood, Patrick Wall imagined life as a professor and football coach at a Catholic university.

It didn't work out that way. Two decades later, Wall has not only left the Catholic Church, he has become one of its most tireless opponents.

He's an ex-priest, driven from ministry by the feeling that his superiors used him to help cover up sex abuse by other clergymen.

And he's using the training he gained as a priest to work with victims of abuse who want to take the church to court.

Since 1991, Wall says he has consulted on more than 1,000 abuse cases, helping lawyers pick apart defenses mounted by dioceses from Alaska to Australia.

Now a senior consultant at the law firm of Manly and Stewart in Southern California, Wall spoke to CNN on the sidelines of a recent conference for legal and religion scholars at Cardiff Law School in Wales.

In Philadelphia, where four priests and a Catholic school teacher were indicted on sex abuse charges earlier this year, Wall says he is helping the district attorney build an unprecedented criminal case not only against the clergy, but against an archdiocesan official who supervised them. The priests – one of whom is the church official – and the teacher have denied the allegations.

The case is potentially historic. Wall doesn't know of another case where a U.S. prosecutor has gone after an official at the top of the church hierarchy as well as the suspected abusers themselves.

Prosecutors are trying to convict a vicar – the man who supervised the priests in the archdiocese – with child endangerment because they say he allowed suspected abusers to have contact with young people.

The case raises the possibility that a high-ranking church official will end up behind bars.

Wall hopes the threat of prison time will change the way American bishops respond to abuse allegations in a way that civil lawsuits have not.

"In the civil cases, we have taken over $3 billion, but you're not getting a lot of change in the system," he says.

Patrick Wall outside a recent conference in Wales.

There has been more than a decade of intense focus on abuse by priests across the United States and Western Europe, plus lawsuits, investigations, and Vatican statements, including instructions to bishops around the world just last month to come up with an abuse policy.

And even so, Wall says, priests are still abusing children.

"I'm working on stuff that happened in the summer of 2010," he says. "It's the same old sodomy."

A life-changing assignment

Wall was studying to be a priest at Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, when there was a life-changing knock on his door one morning after breakfast.

At his door that day in 1990 was the head of the abbey, Abbot Jerome Theisen, with an assignment, Wall says.

Wall, then 25, was to move into one of the freshman dormitories at the university associated with the abbey. The abbot wanted him to become a faculty resident, a staff position that involved keeping an eye on first-year university students in college housing. He was to make the move immediately, that very morning.

Wall knew why.

"Starting in 1989, we started getting hit with lawsuit after lawsuit" from people alleging that priests had abused them, Wall says. He says the abbot told him that credible abuse accusations had been made against the man Wall was to replace.

Brother Paul Richards, a spokesman for Saint John's Abbey, said that the monastery and university had no record of why Wall was asked to work in the dorm. Abbot Theisen has died, Richards added.

Saint John's Abbey adopted a policy on sexual abuse and exploitation in 1989, it says on its website, saying that made it “among the first institutions to adopt” such a policy.

Wall, for his part, says the abbot's request put him on the road to becoming what the church unofficially calls a "fixer," a person who parachutes in to replace clergy who have to disappear quickly and quietly.

Wall as the temporary administrator at a Maplewood, Minnesota church in 1995.

One of Theisen's successors, Abbot John Klassen, issued an open letter of apology in 2002, saying that "some members" of the monastic community had engaged in "abusive sexual behavior with people in our schools and parishes."

A lawsuit was filed earlier this month against Saint John's by a man who says he was abused in the 1960s by a priest who later served as abbot between Theisen and Klassen. The abbey says it was “shocked” by the charges against the late Abbot Timothy Kelly, who died of cancer last year.

It says it is investigating the claims against Kelly, calling them “the first allegations that Abbot Kelly violated his vows or was an abuser.”

Wall plans to testify in that case, he told CNN.

"In the fall of '92 we had another 13 [abuse] cases come through," Wall says. "They pushed up my ordination" by a few months, Wall says, so he could step into the shoes of another priest who had to vanish.

Understanding the damage

It was after his ordination, Wall says, that he began to understand the trauma that abusive priests were inflicting, not only on their victims but on victims' families and communities.

As a new priest, Wall started hearing confessions of victims' relatives who blamed themselves for the abuse, telling Wall "I should have known, I should have seen the signs."

A heavy-set man who laughs easily, Wall still looks like the linebacker he was in high school and college. He peppers his speech with words like "dude" and casually refers to people who he thinks have done something stupid as "morons."

But relating the confessions of victims' relatives, Wall's cheerful demeanor hardens.

"I'm telling them, 'You haven't committed a sin,'" he says.

Wall, right, with his mom, dad and a diocesan priest in 1989.

Wall says that child abuse isn't like other injury cases, such as car crashes, in which a victim might be 10% at fault. Instead, he says, "100% of the blame is on the perpetrator."

Over the next four years, Wall says that the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis sent him to four more places in Minnesota where priests needed to move out fast.

He learned a lot. Wall says he saw that there was a budget for handling cases of priestly sexual abuse as far back as 1994, eight years before the scandal blew up nationally with revelations about abuse in Boston, Massachusetts. The archdiocese could not immediately confirm that, but spokesman Dennis McGrath said he would not be surprised if it was true, saying the archdiocese had been a leader in helping victims of abuse.

Wall did what the church told him to do for as long as he could, he says, but his doubts continued to grow.

"I followed the party line," he says. "But it's pretty hard to follow the party line when you don't think the party line is moral any more."

The breaking point came in 1997. Wall was in Rome, studying for a master's of divinity degree. His abbot called from Minnesota to tell him he was being posted to the Bahamas.

It was not the dream job it might sound like.

Wall says that the Bahamas was where Saint John's was sending priests it had to keep away from people because of abuse allegations. Richards, the abbey's spokesman, flatly denies the charge.

"I basically was going to be a prison warden," Wall says.

"Without much planning, I said, 'Basta cosi,'" he says, lapsing into Minnesota-accented Italian meaning, "Enough of this." Wall had decided to leave the priesthood.

Patrick Wall at his first mass as a priest in December 1992.

The abbot did not take that well, Wall says, warning that he would never make it in "the real world," that he would not be released from his priestly vows and that the order would bill him for the master's degree it had sponsored for him. The tab for the degree was about $48,000, he says.

Richards denies those allegations. "It has never been the abbey's practice to require payback for education from members of our community who have left," he says, "and it was not the case with Pat Wall."

Wall says the abbot's threats did not change his mind.

"All it did is piss me off even more," he says. "I left without a plan in December 1997."

Insider knowledge

Wall says he went home to Lake City, Minnesota to live with his parents, then bounced from job to job for nearly five years. He got married and had a daughter. He made good money as a salesman in Southern California but says he found the work as intellectually stimulating as "shovelling dirt."

And then, in 2002, the California state legislature did something that would change Wall's life. The state opened a one-year window to allow victims of clergy abuse to sue the church, even if the if the statute of limitations on the case had already expired.

Wall's eyes light up as he discusses the moment.

The law did not specifically target the Catholic Church, Wall says, noting that some rabbis were sued as well. But Catholic organizations were by far the largest group of defendants.

Still, suing a Catholic diocese was no easy task. "The litigation demanded a level of expertise that had never been needed before," Wall says.

Because of his religious training in canon law, as the Catholic Church's rules are known, Wall had that expertise. He knew how and where the church kept records. He knew where money came from and where it went. He spoke Italian and Latin.

In his first case, he testified against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, California, challenging its claim that it did not know the Franciscan friar at the center of abuse allegations.

Wall insisted that the archdiocese and any priest in it would have easy access to church records saying who the Franciscan was and who had jurisdiction over him.

The case settled out of court, Wall says.

The Diocese of Orange declined to comment for this article, as did the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which is the defendant in several cases currently involving Wall’s firm, Manly and Stewart.

Jeffrey Lena, a lawyer who represents the Vatican in the United States, also declined to comment.

But Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota-based lawyer who specializes in suing the Catholic Church on behalf of abuse victims and filed the suit against Saint John's Abbey, is full of praise for Wall.

Anderson calls Wall “an extraordinary researcher, academic and hands-on voice of experience from the inside.”

He praises the former priest's “courage,” and says he is a “powerful, insightful source of information based on his own personal experience and his study of the phenomenon” of abuse.

An old problem

Wall argues that the problem of abuse by priests is far older than anyone in the church admits publicly.

The earliest church records concerning sexual misconduct by priests come from the Council of Elvira, he says. That synod took place in what is now Spain in the year 309.

There was a treatment center for abusive priests in Hartford, Connecticut, as far back as 1822, Wall says, and the Vatican issued instructions to American bishops on how to judge and punish accusations of criminal acts by priests as far back as 1883.

Wall provided his translation of the 1883 instructions to CNN. They do not refer to any specific crimes, but refer to “abuses” and “evils.” They set out how to investigate, judge and punish crimes by priests, laying out rules such as the examination of witnesses in private, and the opportunity for the accused to know the charges and to respond and appeal.

The Philadelphia district attorney's office declined to comment on assistance it is receiving from Wall, saying it was prevented by court order from discussing the case with the media.

But Wall says that years of seeing how the Catholic Church handles abuse cases have convinced him that the church will not solve the problem itself.

He says he's not impressed by new instructions from Rome last month giving bishops around the world a year to come up with procedures for handling allegations of abuse.

"It's a Circular Letter," he says, using the official church term for the document. "That means it's for the circular file. Bishops are going to throw it away."

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops revised its 2002 charter around dealing with sex abuse allegations to reflect the Vatican's new standards.

Wall believes the Catholic Church will survive this scandal.

"It's going to fix itself," he says.

"The institution is going to become radically smaller" as people abandon the church, he predicts. "The loss of membership, the problems in the criminal courts, the statements from the pope - these are all good."

Perpetrators need "access, power and money" in order to commit crimes and get away with them, Wall argues. A smaller, weaker Catholic Church won't be able to provide those things, making it less of a haven for abusers, he says, which will lead to a cleansed institution.

In the meantime, Wall says, the church should give up trying to handle abusers internally and let the law step in.

He recommends that the church "completely get out" of child protection, hand over all its files to civil law enforcement, and make bishops sign a legal oath every year that there are no perpetrators in the ministry - which would open them to criminal prosecution if they are found to have lied.

"Otherwise," he says, "I'll be prosecuting priest sex abuse cases for the rest of my life."

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Sex abuse

soundoff (745 Responses)
  1. madiesmith

    I wonder why people cnnot understsand the concept that if a priest provides the false idea and doctrine of offering absolution to it's parisherners that they cannot do the same for those priests who ar fallen into sin...this is the concept that is plaguing the Cathoics

    July 12, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • AvdBerg

      The issue is much greater than you seem to understand. We invite you to read the article The Mystery Babylon on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

      July 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • So

      AvdBerg doing some self promotion we see, you are such a troll. Don't bother people it's nonsense.

      July 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • AvdBerg

      @So

      Seek, and ye will find (Matthew 7:7). Through the Baptism of Repentance (Mark 1:4) God will remove the veil that is upon your heart and you will know that we sent you a message of truth. Repent means to change spirits (Acts 26:18). That is not self-promotion but teachings that are free for anyone that wants to believe (Matthew 6:26; 10:8).

      July 12, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • ....

      TROLL ALERT – This is a person is trying to sell their cult and book, don't bother going to their site it's a bunch of hogwash and a work of Satan. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL

      August 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  2. logmion

    Has The Rock been negligent, breached its duty of care or committed crimes against god? then tell us your truthful stories of abuse and neglect and your views.

    Will whats happened to The News of the World happen to The Rock?

    At C.1:Q.96, Nostradamus foretells of an iconoclastic prophet, using refined language to continually educate, who is raised in the Last Days.

    Logmion is here and says "Bring Back Petrus Romanus"

    Facebook Logmion Pilon

    July 11, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  3. Charles Dexter Ward

    True separation of church and state will only exist when police SWAT teams are allowed to break down rectory doors and arrest pedo priests or storm a mosque and search for weapons. Both of these forms of individual and mass terror will perpetuate as long as we consider their freedom to practice the same as a wall of protection from the law.

    And I say this as a Catholic. Bust 'em if they broke the law and prosecute those at the top who let it happen, same as any organized crime syndicate. Drag away the bishops and the imams until the truly faithful in both houses learn to root out the bad stuff themselves.

    July 8, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • jonathan

      I wonder why people cnnot understsand the concept that if a priest provides the false idea and doctrine of offering absolution to it's parisherners that they cannot do the same for those priests who ar fallen into sin...this is the concept that is plaguing the Cathoics ...I belive that they get their idea from the book of James ...is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of hte Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save teh sick ....if he have committed sins , they shall be forgivne him. Confess your faults one to another and pray for one another that ye may be healed ...obviously if they were pratciing this properly there would be no need for Catholic hospitals , now would there????? confess your faults one to another.... pray for one another.... the effectual fevent prayer of a righteous man avails much...if one is to confess their faults they need ot confess it to the whole congregation not in secret .... I realize that sin is embarrising but the fact is to purge yourself of sin, you must be purified of it...and the only way is the shame and humilation before all...If all of us acknolwedged all our sins I gaurentee you we will stop.. and that's the whole key ...to stop sinning... and stop living a lie in secret in the front of everyone else..O what wickedness of the devil.. :(

      July 10, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • AvdBerg

      @Jonathan

      Sorry Jonathan that doesn't work as they do not acknowledge that they are sick (sinners). For a better understanding what it means to be a sinner we invite you to read the artcle What is Sin? listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

      July 11, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • jonathan

      My dear avdberg, sin and sickness are two different things..the writer James is admonishing that if any is sick let them pray..and if , it says if, any has sinned; let him confess that in order to be healed...Prayer for the sick was always the manner in which Christians were cured back then..It is what Jesus and his apostles did customarily.. :)
      and is intended for all Christians...

      some how it got lost ...perhaps the martyrdoms might have something to do with it...

      July 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • AvdBerg

      @jonathan

      Matthew 9:12. That they be whole (self-righteous) need not a physician, but they that are sick (sinner). Some things are spoken natural and some spiritual. Please visit our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca and review the header on all the pages, then we invite you to read all the pages and articles.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  4. atunam

    Pedophilia is a horror.

    This lawyer would have more credibility if he were not making millions off their pain.

    July 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  5. Mary

    I do not like or trust former priests – and I am Catholic.

    July 7, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Master

      not that lonelyi did some slgoinafrcm the porch i didnt keep track of time, it was more of a stess test for my kneeit feels much better nowthat 10K really strained it

      September 9, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  6. Adam

    A modern-day Martin Luther. Good for you for sticking up for what you believe is right, and even making the difficult decision to separate yourself from your religion over it.

    July 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  7. Suz

    Love this – keep fighting the good fight, Mr. Wall. I have no problems with religion, but I have BIG problems with huge organizations abusing their power and hurting the helpless.

    July 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  8. SC

    Those priests will get theirs. The Bible says this:

    Luke 12:48 But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.

    Also, Mark 9:42 "But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck."

    My prayers go out to all the abuse victims. I pray that there will be a radical change in how we protect children in this country and stop protecting the abusers.

    July 5, 2011 at 1:23 am |
  9. Bishop Santa Claus

    Perhaps, CNN's Richard Allen Greene should visit TheSanta dot im and take a moment to read:
    http://religiouschildabuse.blogspot.com/2011/01/bishop-santa-claus-accuses-pope-of.html

    July 4, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
  10. logmion

    At C.1:Q.96, Nostradamus foretells of an iconoclastic prophet, using refined language to continually educate, who is raised in the Last Days.

    Logmion is here and says Brink Back Petrus Romanus

    July 3, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  11. david55

    How to deal with pedophile priests. Burn them to death. Why not give them a preview of the torment they themselves claim they are going to. If God forgives a priest who abuses his congregation, thats not a God you should believe in.

    July 3, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  12. logmion

    Logmion is here and says Bring Back Petrus Romanus

    June 30, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  13. maurice

    Yes, it is true and I can identify with all here: how to deal with pedophille clergy, fathers/mothers older siblings guardians of the young who have all abused as total individual will never be condoend or excused by me who was abused by a religious brother: It seems an impossible task to really punish the abuser to such a level that he or she accepts they have abused and stopped living in denial: We all know the effects of abuse: it can remain forver in the human presence in us all: I was one of the luckier one's I was able to seek and get counselling which certainly gave me back my self worth and dignity but I still have the scars which I feel will never heal: Many a priest, family never knew they had such sheep in wolf's clothing in their midst as pedophille, child molesters, abusers: that sadly is the hidden side of the coin: How these wolf's cou;ld live normal lifes and still be deceitful and cunning individuals as taking away the dignity of the innocent and the vunerable child/adolecent/young adult: counselling is ever so important for all the victim and the abuser/perpetrator of abuse: Let us pray for all God's children for enlightemnet to see justice is gotten for all victims

    June 30, 2011 at 6:40 am |
    • Scott

      If the christian god existed, and was as loving and compassionate as Christians say. How could he have every let this happen even once? If he was as knowing as Christians say, how could he let his chosen shepherds do this? And if he was as powerful and a just as Christians say he is, where is his wrath, vengeance and lightening bolts to incinerate the the church and perpetrators who have done this in his name?

      June 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • jonathan

      @ Scott ...God's vengeance comes on the day of judgment..He waits long for the harvest of souls ...but he shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath...Why are you in such a hurry to see that day... :)

      July 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  14. Angela B

    I say this as a Catholic. Those priests all need to go to jail where they belong. There has never been and will never be an excuse for the sins/crimes they have committed. The Church's response has been absolutely abhorrent and all those bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who knew about all of this should be tried as co-conspirators. Put them all in jail so the priests who have true faith can stand up and allow the Church to be a place of worship and righteousness. And while they are in jail the Silencer should ex-communicate them; send a good message to everyone exactly where pedophiles end up.

    June 30, 2011 at 3:05 am |
    • Truth

      pope needs to go to jail.

      July 2, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • jonathan

      It is not those priests fault but the system that is built on lies..and falsehoods.... it is a plague...spoken of in the bible in Revelation chp. 17 or 18. :)

      July 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  15. ChildrescueBill

    Help us expose the crimes of child abuse and hold those organizations responsible for the cover ups. Tweet @ChildRescueBill

    June 28, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  16. Glades2

    Driving priests from their called vocation is one of the devil's oldest tricks, since he knows that souls will be lost as a result, and is why priests must ride out any false accusations against them instead of giving up and quitting...

    June 28, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • scottabc

      Wow this is exactly the kind of religious fanaticism that guarantees abuse will continue. Thank you for your ignorant post because it will surely show the need for brave men like Mr Wall.

      June 28, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • chief

      re glades2.... great comment if your in to protecting peds against the law the punishment they deserve.....

      June 29, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Scott

      Well they can't marry and they can't have children. Maybe this is just god's way of having priests make more priests?

      June 30, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • ricardstevens

      th priests have already broken their vows but molesting children. they have turned their backs on their vocation when decided to abuse.

      July 4, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  17. chief

    more power to him.... i hope it gets all the ped priests out there.... it will reduce the number of posts because they post out here as so-called normal people

    June 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • petel2

      That is likely more true than you realize.

      June 22, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  18. HelpNewYorkExposePedos

    Yes! New York has an opportunity to expose pedophiles. However we need your help. If the 'Child Victims Act' Bill does not make it to the floor for votes by wed, 22nd, this coming week, it will be squashed. The Assembly will pass the Bill, however certain senators will keep it in codes committee, in the senate. It needs to get out of the codes committee (they place it there to kill it). We need to get it to the floor to be voted on. Please go to http://www.ChildRescueBill.org/Yoursupport/YourSupport.htm

    All we ask is your phone call and an email. We will keep you posted on what senators are stopping it.

    Thank you for your help.

    June 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  19. Reality

    Why did today's pope, prelates, preachers and rabbis, so focused on society's se-xual sins, lose sight of clerical se-xual sins?

    FEAR, SHAME and GUILT and COVER IT ALL UP!!!

    Obviously ordination in any religion is not assurance of good behavior !!!!!

    Neither is coronation!!! e.g. Henry VIII, King David.

    Neither is marriage as 50% of those men convicted of pedophilia are married.

    Neither is being elected president of the USA!! e.g. Billy "I did not have se-x with that girl" Clinton, John "Marilyn Monroe" Kennedy"

    Neither is possessing super athletic skill!!! e.g. Tiger "I am so sorry for getting caught" Woods.

    Neither is being an atheist or pagan since pedophilia is present in all walks of life.

    If someone is guilty of a crime in this litany of "neithers" they should or should have been penalized as the law dictates to include jail terms for pedophiliacs (priests, rabbis, evangelicals, boy scout leaders, married men/women), divorce for adultery (Clinton, Kennedy, Woods), jail terms for obstruction of justice (Clinton, Cardinal Law) and the death penalty or life in prison for murder ("Kings David and Henry VIII).

    June 21, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • mantooth

      to convict a King of murder for executing someone would require convicting every president or Governor who has presided over an area where capitol punishment takes place

      If it is in the law, then it would be capitol punishment, not murder

      Either that or you believe capitol punishment is state mandated murder

      July 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  20. Zelda

    It's nice to attemp to clean up a ins-ti-tu-tions, but he needs to quest for the objective truth and build up the Church.

    June 21, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • a victim

      the heck with the catholic church. It's all about stealing from otehrs, always has been.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • chief

      re zelda.... i cant believe what you wrote.... "attempt to clean up ... " .... objective truth? build up the church? how about stopping ped priests and arresting them as well as those who protect them? how about the idiots that love the church more than the kids its allowed to have been abused for centuries?

      the hell train doesnt have many empty seats... most ly filled with priests and parishoners.... the best judgment is that these ped priests end up in hell with each other

      June 29, 2011 at 9:10 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.