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From Monk to Sex Plaintiffs' Advocate

January 19, 2003|William Lobdell | 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.

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