How Patrick Wall became the Catholic church's worst nightmare

One man's journey from priest to sex-abuse scandal whistleblower

How Patrick Wall became the Catholic church's worst nightmare
Martin Ontiveros

Patrick Wall flips through a six-inch-thick binder in a law office that once housed a confessional booth. He's got whole boxes yet to comb through, each containing several decades' worth of internal church memos, affidavits, and police reports.

Every whiff of possible corruption gets filed somewhere inside his graying, bushy dome, which seems mounted on his barrel chest sans neck. He has a face like a bulldog and the cadence of a detective; in another life he might have made it to the NFL.

But today he has a more sundry task: researching clerical sexual abuse cases and relaying the findings to the St. Paul attorneys who employ him.

Patrick Wall on the stairs of Jeff Anderson and Associates’ office in St. Paul
Tony Nelson
Patrick Wall on the stairs of Jeff Anderson and Associates’ office in St. Paul
Wall speaking to parishioners
courtesy of Patrick Wall
Wall speaking to parishioners

Wall won't be present when Archbishop John Nienstedt and former Vicar General Kevin McDonough are deposed in a few weeks, but his stamp will be all over the inquisition. It's for the best, because Wall's presence may rub the holy men the wrong way. He's no longer welcome at the archdiocese, and for good reason.

"I am the enemy," Wall says, smiling. "I am the ultimate defector."

His path started out idealistically enough. Wall trained as a Benedictine monk and priest, and for years belonged to a class of clergy who sooth troubled parishes.

But in his late 30s, he re-dedicated his life. Now he's one of the key players in Minnesota who's trying to expose cover-ups of abuse and bring the Catholic Church to its knees.

It was only last year that a canon lawyer named Jennifer Haselberger resigned from the archdiocese in protest, setting in motion a scandal that continues to unfold. Documents she provided to police suggested that Nienstedt, McDonough, and others knew for years that a particular priest had been a danger but didn't alert the community — to the detriment of two boys. (The archdiocese declined three invitations to comment on this story.)

"Every Catholic feels some resistance to this," says Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org. "But let's face it: Such horrible things have been done. If you can't get angry about a child being anally raped, you can't get angry about anything."

Wall's work has brought him both vitriol and praise, even though he toils mostly in the shadows. After a self-imposed exile, he returned to Minnesota last year with a sense of righteous indignation.

"When my life comes to an end, I want to be able to stand at the gates and to answer the Lord that I did everything I could," Wall says. "I protect children. I prosecute molesters. It's probably the most noble thing you could do."

Wall was only in high school in the late 1970s, but he knew a bully when he saw one.

A big kid was picking on a scrawny one. Wall moved through the crowd to get a better look. Even then he was tough and expansive — a rising athletic star in a small town.

Instinctively, Wall stepped up and locked eyes. With one hand, he pushed the bully against the locker and held him until the little kid could get away. No words were spoken between them.

"I learned the power of force," Wall says. "From that point forward, when things needed to be taken care of, I took care of it."

The Wall family traces its lineage to Normand spies in Ireland who eventually emigrated to the Minnesota. Patrick was born on an April day in 1965, and every major moment of his life since then has involved some combination of violence and contemplation.

His mother, Robbie, was a stewardess and his father, John, was a pilot and World War II vet who'd considered the priesthood but grew suspicious of large institutions and their leadership. Still, he considered himself a Catholic, and signed up his son to be an altar and choir boy.

John retired early and moved the family from St. Paul to a farm in Lake City. At the edge of the property, the boy could look down with wonder upon Frontenac State Park and Villa Maria, an old nunnery and boarding school.

At confirmation, he wore a red sash with the imprint of a white bird over his powder-blue suit. Whereas other students took new names for the event, Wall stuck with Patrick. Few in his class had any doubt that he was ready for the priesthood.

"Some kids chose not to succeed," says Chuck Menk, a friend who was also confirmed on that day. "Pat was in the core group that got it and understood his calling, even at a young age."

It was Wall's high school English teacher who first remarked that he had a personality like a prison warden — taciturn but able to deliver a resounding criticism.

As high school came to a close, Wall considered a college-level seminary but wanted instead to play football while pursuing what he calls "the love of learning and the desire for God."

His father refused to pay for any college other than a Catholic one. Wall chose St. John's University because he liked the Benedictine sense of self-sufficiency.

"I honestly thought I was going to be a professor, a monk, and a football coach," Wall says. "And of course none of it happened."

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