How Patrick Wall became the Catholic church's worst nightmare
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.
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."
Well, one of them happened: He became a monk. The monastery set him up with a room facing the lake. He spent several years of ignorant bliss. No newspapers. No TV. He did nothing but study and pray.
Then one morning came a knock on his door. It was Abbot Jerome Theisen, who seldom poked his head into this part of the monastery. A toothbrush hung from Wall's mouth as Theisen came into the room and calmly announced that he was being transferred.
The monk serving on the second floor of Mary Hall had been removed. Theisen needed a replacement.
Wall threw up the only roadblock he could think of: from the dorms, he wouldn't have access to the computer lab. Theisen promised to buy him a personal one.
"If I had asked for a Maserati and an M-16, he might have said, 'Yes,'" Wall jokes. "There was nothing that was going to stop him."
So Wall did what he was told. He organized a pizza party for the incoming freshmen. The students were too fired up about starting college to realize that something was amiss.
Wall did his time and returned to his theological studies full-time in the fall of 1992 — just as a wave of lawsuits against the church hit. In December, six months before being awarded a master's degree in divinity, he was ordained into the Order of St. Benedict.
Inside St. John's Abbey, he took photographs with his smiling family and friends, the people who'd once nicknamed him "Brick Wall" because of his resiliency. Little did they know, doubt was starting to creep in.
"We were the last Marines standing on top of the damn embassy in Hanoi," he says. "It was bad."
At the start of a new year, when Wall was 27, he was conscripted into a brotherhood of priests whom he describes informally as "fixers."
"I was a company guy and I followed the rules," Wall says. "The abbot told me I was going and that's what I did under obedience."
His first stop was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, where a priest had been quietly removed for yet another allegation of sexual impropriety. Wall went about his business and avoided questions from parishioners.
Then they began showing up in his office, privately, after Mass — men and women, he says, who spoke of abuses.
He did what he thought was best: He collected a few facts and passed them along to his superiors.
"Naively, I thought these were isolated incidents," Wall says. "I didn't see or know that there was a pattern."
More than a year later, Wall's assigment was complete. He had hoped to return to St. John's to teach, but instead got a letter instructing him to take over as associate pastor of St. Bernard's in St. Paul.
Normally priests got word of their new posts weeks in advance. Wall was given days.
Outside the monastery, he had never held a real job. He viewed his new assignment as a promotion.
"That's the way things work in this institution," he says. "If you're willing to clean things up, you rise quickly. The trajectory was starting to become clear."
Three more years and three more churches: Wall's work pivoted on other people's mistakes, including those of a school principal.
He also found himself working on a finance counsel and interning at the metropolitan tribunal court in St. Paul under Father Joseph Wajda, who, according to the archdiocese's own files, had been accused of inappropriate contact that included giving birthday "spankings." Wajda cost the archdiocese more than $180,000 in private settlements before he was pulled out of parish life. By the time he met Wall, Wajda had became a judge in church marriage court. (Wajda denies he ever touched a child inappropriately and describes Wall's version of events as "an absolute falsehood.")
Wall remembers Wajda handing him the personnel file of Auxiliary Bishop Lawrence Welsh and telling him to study it as a template for future emergencies. Before coming to St. Paul, Welsh had been investigated for strangling a male prostitute, though no charges were filed. He later left the Diocese of Spokane after getting a DUI.
"If a priest winds up on the street, somebody's going to start asking questions," Wall explains. "You've got to make it go away. You've got to keep the plutonium contained."
By that point in his life, however, Wall had spoken to enough priests to know that sex permeated the diocese. Celibacy was seldom followed. Wall was bothered that he was one of the few clergyman around who kept the sacred vow, and wondered whether he, too, was incapable of it long term.
"I probably would have stayed a priest, honestly, if I had been smart enough not to follow the fucking law," he says, laughing. "I could have had a live-in concubine that no one talked with or noticed."
Darkness crept through the nursing home. Wall roamed the hall, from room to room, performing his nightly duties. He checked on the residents and changed bedpans until dawn.
There was no plan and no shortage of time. He'd crossed over from one world into the next.
"My whole life was the church," Wall says. "When you leave, you're shunned. All the people you once thought were your friends are gone."
The former priest knew he needed to leave Minnesota if he really intended to start over. He packed his few belongings and headed to Southern California, where he would be enforcing child-support payments for the San Diego District Attorney's Office. He stayed for only a few months and took a job that needed his one and only translatable skill — salesmanship.
For the first time since high school, Wall began dating, and found only disappointment.
"I was getting set up at work with all these goof balls," he says. "They were either really religious, so they'd want to go to confessional right way. Or they were atheistic, so they were really polarizing."
So it came as a relief when a dating service set him up with an intelligent and affectionate marriage therapist named Lisa Hill, who was also in her 30s and had counseled abuse victims. They were married in less than a year.
"At that age, you just know," she says. "I was one of the first women to ask him what canon law was."
She also cracked a joke, which ended by telling him to "celebrate, not celibate."
Wall was settling into domestic life when he opened the newspaper one day and read an op-ed by John Manly, an attorney who was suing the Catholic Church. Manly called out American bishops for the hardball tactics they'd been using in court, which included a countersuit against a victim in Portland.
"The only way the Church can deal with this issue is to stop denying it, admit fault, minister to victims and expel perpetrators from the clergy," Manly wrote.
The boldness of the voice excited Wall. He reached out to Manly and explained that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of another religious legal consultant named Richard Sipe.
Like Wall, Sipe was a former Benedictine monk from Minnesota who had relocated to Southern California. As a psychotherapist, he'd interviewed both victims and perpetrators of abuse. Attorneys often sought him out for his work suggesting that 6 percent of Catholic clergy are sexually involved with minors.
Sipe called the few friends he had remaining at St. John's. They described Wall as strong-willed and independent.
"In my terms," Sipe says, "it was a very good recommendation."
It was immediately clear to Wall that the legal world knew almost nothing of the church's Byzantine ways. The first thing he did was hand lawyers a copy of the Official Catholic Directory, a public document that lists the names of every clergy member and the parishes where they served. With this file and a little patience, anyone could construct a timeline of how a particular priest was moved around.
The next thing Wall did was chart out the various mental health facilities, including St. Luke Institute in Maryland, where abusive priests were sent for treatment.
"The advantage the institution has is that it operates in an alternative universe with an alternative language and an alternative operating system that does not exist anywhere else," Wall says. "The way you fight Rome is playing by Roman rules."
He quickly allied himself with attorneys on the West Coast, and found the kinship he'd been lacking for so many years in the priesthood.
"He's got brothers in arms now that admire and respect him as a colleague and a friend," says attorney Tony DeMarco.
The California years were good to Wall. He had a desk in Manly's office and offered his services to whoever needed them. It brought him into contact with another renegade of the Catholic Church — a foul-mouthed military chaplain named Thomas Doyle, who once served as a canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C.
"It's a hard fight," Doyle says. "But the real church — the people — is not going to sit back any longer and tolerate this insane nonsense perpetrated by the bishops and clergy."
In 1985, Doyle co-wrote a manual about the rising problem of clerical sexual abuse. Every bishop in the United States received a copy when they met in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Suddenly, all three contrarians — Wall, Doyle, and Sipe — found themselves fielding the same exact question from reporters across the country: Is the Boston scandal unique or only the latest chapter in a dark history?
Wall proposed that the men pool their resources and write a book. The result was a 388-page manifesto entitled Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, which looked at the ramifications of suppressing the sexuality of religious men.
St. Peter Damien's Book of Gomorrah, published in the 11th century, dedicates a whole chapter to the destruction wrought by promiscuous clergy. Pope Leo IX responded by praising Damien and casting out the most serious offenders. In later years, the church went so far as to work with civil authorities to put certain clerics to death.
In theory, the seminary was created in the 17th century to reduce instances of sexual abuse by instilling intellectual, cultural, and moral formation, the authors explain. In practice, the seminary bolstered the mystique of the priesthood and helped conceal violations.
By the modern age, all talk of sexual abuse had gone underground. Through it all, cardinals were taking an oath that swears "never to reveal to anyone whatsoever has been confided to me to keep secret and the revelation of which could cause damage or dishonor to the Holy Church."
No, the authors concluded, Boston was not unique. It only exposed the template used by the American Catholic Church when dealing with sexual abuse.
"It's been known by the church for centuries and been denied," Sipe says. "Secrecy is part of the essence of the clerical system."
Published in 2006, Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes provided the historical context that reporters and lawyers — even those who'd been raised Catholic — had struggled to grasp. It's exactly this kind of technical expertixe that makes Wall so valuable.
"He's a student," says lawyer Jeff Anderson, "but he's also our teacher."
While in ministry, Wall knew little about Anderson except that clerics often referred to him as "El Diablo." He's a petite and pugnacious man with enormous influence and wealth. In the 1980s, while other attorneys agreed to quick, confidential settlements with various dioceses, Anderson began filing public cases and taking depositions.
He's worked on thousands of cases since then, but the one thing he always needed was an insider. By the mid-2000s, Anderson was calling on Wall as an expert witness in canon law. Of course, not everyone saw it that way.
"Suing the Catholic Church is now a multibillion-dollar industry," says Dave Pierre, a blogger at themediareport.com, which monitors mainstream coverage of clergy sex abuse. "The function these guys serve is in getting more clients."
That's one of the most common complaints leveled against Wall since he left the priesthood in 1998. To hear St. John's Abbey tell it, much of Wall's career has been an act of revision and duplicity; from the beginning, he'd never taken his vows seriously, and for a six-month period toward the end of his priestly service he went AWOL. For proof, they point to his personnel file, a portion of which they've shared with City Pages.
In particular, they highlight a letter of recommendation that allowed Wall to study canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He traveled there in 1997, but came home after it was alleged that he forged his superior's signature.
"He was not a fixer; he was a vexation," says abbey spokesman Dennis Beach in a series of emails on the eve this story's publication, adding: "We are of course concerned about how to respond if Wall's false and defamatory allegations are made public."
Wall dismisses all of it as the usual defense against a whistleblower.
"They've got to attack me somehow, man, and that's the way they're going to continue," Wall says.
The Orange County District Attorney's Office was more than happy to take Wall on board. He met Heather Brown, a deputy DA, at a fundraiser and offered his services for free in the prosecution of Denis Lyons, a former priest accused of four felony counts of lewd acts with a child under 14.
Wall instructed Brown on the specific types of documents she needed to unearth in subpoenas, and shook up the diocese in the process. Lyons pleaded took a plea deal and received a year in jail rather than fight the charges.
"Without him, I would have never known the people involved in the cover-up," Brown says of Wall. "They play little word games. If you don't use the right vernacular, in their mind they're justified in not giving you that file."
Those who enter the Wall family home in Stillwater are greeted by a stone statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. There are other obvious signs that a religious man lives here — shelves of leather-bound tomes and golden Christian iconography. More than anything, one is struck by the cathedral-like arched ceiling.
Wall might never have returned to Minnesota had it not been for the Child Victims Act, which abolished the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse cases for three years. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis led the effort to stop the bill under the guise of the MN Religious Council, but it was galvanized by the conviction of Penn State serial child molester Jerry Sandusky. In the spring of 2013, it passed the Senate 66-0 and the House 115-7.
So last summer, the Walls packed up their belongings and left California behind. There was never any question in Lisa's mind about what the family needed to do.
"We just knew," she says, standing in her kitchen, then adds wryly: "When we first started dating, I asked if he had any plans to go back to Minnesota, and he said, 'I don't have any plans to.'"
Patrick retreats here each night, gazing out into the forest behind his house and filtering the day's leads from the criticism. Since 1950, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has counted at least 16,795 individuals who allege they were abused as minors. Wall seems to take pleasure at the thought of deposing some of his old friends.
"They believe in an institution, not the faith," Patrick says. "This is where those of us who don't think this is a God problem — we think this is a people problem — disagree."
He slides into a dark brown leather sofa, surrounded by his wife and 12-year-old daughter, Erin, who was baptized Catholic. Patrick considers himself "more of a Buddhist" than anything, and his wife holds tight to her Methodist upbringing. As a whole, the family has yet to find a single place of worship to call home.
"But the faith in God is still in there," Lisa says. "That hasn't wavered at all. We still pray at the table."
Erin giggles, adjusts her pink-framed glasses, and looks at her father. He blushes and smiles back.
"Sometimes things get a little snarky," Wall confesses.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.