From Monk to Sex Plaintiffs' Advocate

Times Staff Writer

As a Benedictine monk, Patrick Wall gained the reputation as a fix-it priest for the Catholic Church. His first four assignments wearing a Roman collar: straightening out parishes tainted by molestation and financial scandal.

Each job took about a year, after which he'd be rewarded with a transfer to another troubled church in his native Minnesota. By age 29, Wall also was asked to serve in two lofty positions within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: as a member of its financial council and as a judge on the Tribunal, the church's local court.

But then, in 1999, he walked away from the priesthood -- largely, he said, because he had grown weary of watching the church hierarchy put its desire to avoid scandal ahead of the needs of sexual abuse victims. He said he had grown tired of seeing innocent people run over by "the Roman machine coming down the tracks in all its glory."

Wall, now 37, still sees himself as a fix-it man for the Catholic Church -- but now he's working for the other side. Late last year, Wall took a job with John Manly, a Costa Mesa lawyer representing plaintiffs with scores of sexual abuse claims against the church. The hiring of a former insider is thought to be the first of its kind for a law firm during the church's yearlong national scandal.

As Manly's expert in church, or "canon," law and church practices, Wall helps the lawyers interpret church documents and understand church structure, finances and culture. He has firsthand experience in how the church hierarchy processes molestation claims and knows where critical information may be hidden. He can also read Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Italian.

"We're now on equal footing with the church," Wall said, "and we can deal with the cases on their merits."

It's difficult to get a full picture of how Wall's former colleagues view his new line of work. The Benedictine brothers who were closest to him declined to comment. But Father William Skudlarek, spokesman for St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., said Wall had problems as a priest and passes himself off as a canon law expert even though his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome lasted less than two months.

Wall said he was called home from Rome by his abbot to handle another scandal, but Skudlarek said a letter from the university says Wall was expelled after two months for falsely stating on his application that his abbot had granted him a leave from the priesthood to attend school, and submitted "an inauthentic" letter of recommendation.

"He forged that letter," Skudlarek said.

Wall denies both allegations and said the only letter he's ever seen from Gregorian University officials simply reflected his abbot's wishes that he return home for another assignment.

As for his expertise in canon law, Wall points to his nearly three years on the archdiocesan Tribunal. "To me, that's where my experience and depth come from," he said. "Going to Rome was more like getting a driver's license than anything else."

Skudlarek said Wall's other problems involved a penchant for acting as "an independent contractor" and not following superiors' orders.

Wall's new boss said he finds Skudlarek's comments somewhat predictable. "It's a play right out of the tobacco industry playbook," Manly said. "It sends a message to any insider who comes forward and tells the truth: There's a price to pay."

Richard Sipe, also a former Benedictine monk and national expert on sexual abuse within the church, said he checked out Wall with his former Benedictine colleagues. "Patrick knows the system from the inside -- not just church law and the hierarchy, but ... the reality," said Sipe, who has been called as an expert witness in hundreds of molestation cases, including those handled by Manly.

It's been 15 years since Wall was a center on the football team at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. But at 5 feet 10 and 235 pounds -- 10 pounds under his playing weight -- he still looks like he could move some linemen. Only his wire-rimmed glasses and quiet voice suggest an intellect that put him on prestigious archdiocesan committees while still in his 20s.

Raised in rural Minnesota in a devoutly Catholic family, Wall said he knew by the time he went to college that he wanted to be a priest.

But even before he was ordained, his Benedictine superiors sent him into the St. John's dorms to restore order after a sexual scandal. And so it went during his five-year career as a priest. Serving most of the time as an interim pastor, he untangled messes that included affairs between priests and nuns, embezzlements that reached six figures, and numerous alleged molestations.

And as a member of the Tribunal and Finance Council, he says, he grew used to the same reaction to any scandal that hit his archdiocese, an institutionally learned response he says is repeated by church leaders worldwide: The first priority was to keep the allegations covered up, whether through confidential settlements, priest transfers or victim intimidation, so the church's reputation could remain intact.

In 1997, when his abbot called him back from his studies in Rome, Wall said he was disheartened to hear he was about to be assigned to another trouble spot. So he quit. He said he was tired of being the fix-it priest, angry about the church's response to scandal -- and, he says, he had been yearning to have a family, though no woman was then in the picture.

"It's really hard: You're marrying people, baptizing all these kids, and there's a part of you missing," Wall said. "If you're serious about celibacy, it's a level of intimacy that you can never get to."

He spent the next few years in a variety of jobs that allowed him time to contemplate his future. He changed bedpans on the night shift at a Catholic hospital for six months before moving to Southern California. He worked for a short time enforcing child-support payment judgments for the San Diego district attorney, before going into freight sales. During that time, he met and married his wife, Lisa. They live in Huntington Beach with their 15-month-old daughter.

"It was a time to get my life together, and I had to put first things first," Wall said of his string of jobs, adding that he felt like "a fish out of water. But finding a right soul mate was my top priority. Once that was in place, it was time to start thinking about my career."

Last year, prompted by a newspaper essay written by Manly, Wall called the lawyer on the spur of the moment to say, "You're right on. Please continue what you're doing. And whatever I can do to help, I will."

After running a background check on Wall, Manly began using him as a consultant and eventually hired him.

"You can talk to the guy for two seconds and see how he would be a good priest," said Manly, also a lifelong Catholic. "And his experience is invaluable. He has the ability to sort through all [the church's claims] and demonstrate which of them aren't true."

Wall said his faith remains strong, and he's optimistic about the church's future. But, he warned, the church won't be healed until the current crop of cardinals and bishops is changed, through retirements or resignations.

"Their culture has spawned the problem," Wall said. "Scandals are abhorred and the institution is protected above individuals. They operate on fear of a scandal."

For Wall, this latest assignment offers him a second chance to help victims.

"The biggest thing I failed in doing [as a priest] was to stand up to our leaders," Wall said. "We all maintained the silence.

"This is something I can concretely do -- helping the church refocus on the poorest and weakest among us. That's who the victims are."

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