This American Life: Act Two. Confession.

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Act two, Confession. We turn now to stories about people who are operating behind enemy lines in one way or another. And we begin with the story of a young priest who is sent out on a series of jobs by church administrators to squelch some problems. In spending time out among the people who he is supposed to be deceiving he finds it harder and harder to keep doing his job. Carl Marziali tells the story from Los Angeles.

View Original Article and listen to audio…. here.

Carl Marziali

Patrick Wall was just where he wanted to be at 26. He was a monk studying theology at Saint John’s Monastery in rural Minnesota. He lived in a quiet room facing the lake. He looked forward to a life of study and prayer. It was late summer, 1991.

Patrick Wall

The first day that school started out, pretty uneventful winter morning. Prayer at 7 o’clock like normal. Went down for breakfast like normal, went back up to my room. Was literally brushing my teeth when there was a knock on my door, which is extremely out of the ordinary.

And it was Abbott Jerome Tyson. Well, the abbot’s a very quiet guy, and he usually never went up on that floor of the monastery. So he says, may I come in? I said, yes, Father Abbot, no problem. So he comes in, sits down, and you know I’ve got my books out, I’ve got a class in 10 minutes. You know, what’s up?

And he said, well, Father Dan Ward has told me that you would be a good person for this particular job. And we have a situation over in Saint Mary’s Hall that we need you to be a faculty resident.

Carl Marziali

The faculty resident is the live-in counsellor at the college dorm. The campus at Saint John’s includes a university.

Patrick Wall

I said, “I’d love to be a faculty resident someday. I think it’s a great idea.” And he said, “No, today.” And when I asked Abbot Jerome specifically what it was for, what was going on, he said well, I can’t tell you that.

We had numerous sexual abuse cases that have been popping up. So ultimately there’s only one conclusion that can be drawn. That there was a an allegation that they must have thought somewhat credible or probable, and they needed to pull that particular monk. And off I went.

Carl Marziali

That afternoon, Wall moved his stuff out of his room and into the freshman dorm. His instructions were simple. Put the kids at ease, and don’t say anything about the monk you’re replacing.

He organized a pizza party for the students. He told them he was taking over as faculty resident but that he couldn’t say why. There were no questions. Wall didn’t know it then, but he was being tested. Unfortunately for him, he passed. His dream was to be a monk as he understood monks to be: devout and learned men who live in monasteries.

By showing a knack for damage control, he put himself on a less spiritual path. Before long the abbot appointed him to a sexual abuse response team and sent him to the Church of Saint Elizabeth’s in the town of Hastings. He was replacing a pastor who’d been withdrawn for what the monastery called a credible allegation. Wall arrived at Saint Elizabeth’s on February 2nd, 1993.

Replacing a pastor is not easy. People in a parish tend to get attached to their priest. Replacing a disgraced pastor is harder. A lot of people believe their priest can do no wrong and they are not shy about telling his replacement.

Patrick Wall

They were very forward and forthright and angry. And they said, Father, I’m really sad that you’re here. I’m really sorry that you had to come. Because we really liked the other monk and we don’t think he should have been removed.

And that was it. I said, I’m really sorry that that particular monk had to be removed and I’m here because my abbot asked me to be here. I tried to be as candid and simple as possible, but I felt taken aback, and I felt sad from the very beginning. I didn’t enjoy that experience.

Carl Marziali

At first, Wall tried to raise morale. He told parishioners what he himself had been told. That the alleged abuse took place A, some time ago, and B, somewhere else. But it wasn’t long before victims at Saint Elizabeth’s began coming forward. They would show up unannounced at the rectory, or in the church after mass, and asked to speak to him in private. Then they would start with a tiny revelation.

Patrick Wall

It’s unforgettable. It’s absolutely unforgettable when they start to tell you. And they only tell you very small, cryptic little things. There are code words for everything. And they’ve kind of broached the subject to see what you’re going to do with it and to see if you’re going to actually believe them.

And obviously I’m 27 years old, I’m not exactly sure what to do with it. Emotionally I really had no idea what to do with it.

Carl Marziali

So how did you deal with it when the victim or victims came forward and told you about what had happened? Do you try to comfort them, do you try to tell them that– I mean, what do you do? Do you try to restore their faith in the Church or do you just listen and write up a complaint and send it off?

Patrick Wall

You don’t even write up a complaint. Basically, you get a few of the facts and then you pass that on to the diocese. And honestly, unfortunately, it’s easy to deal with because these people never go to church again. Because they really view that person as representing God, so it’s hard for them to publicly ever celebrate or to practice their faith again. So they just disappear, honestly.

Carl Marziali

Did you ever wonder whether you should make a special effort when they came to you to– beyond the effort that you might make to convince somebody else to come back to the church– to do something more for these victims, or to offer them counseling, or something to try to make up for what had happened?

Patrick Wall

It’s a difficult situation because you really need to remain neutral. And your natural inclination, especially as priests, is to be sympathetic and to heal. But there’s no way that you’re going to be allowed to be part of the healing process, because ultimately you’re part of the defendant. You are the institution that brought about their hurt. And so you really have to put your professional hat on and keep an arm’s distance.

Carl Marziali

Wall survived the scandal at Saint Elizabeth’s, and he helped his superiors survive it too. He never told parishioners about the allegations in their parish, and the stories he was hearing in private never became public.

After serving a year at Saint Elizabeth’s, Wall thought he would come back to the monastery. But near the end of his term he received a letter from the abbot instructing him to report to another parish, Saint Bernard’s. The monk there had been having an affair and paying for it with church money. This was not the assignment Wall had in mind, but part of him was flattered.

Patrick Wall

I felt pretty good about it because all of a sudden, I’m 28 years old, I’m an administrator of a parish. I’m being turned loose as the boss. That’s a compliment as far as I’m concerned. I really felt I was doing the right thing.

Carl Marziali

Not long after Wall arrived at Saint Bernard’s, an agent from the IRS knocked on his door. The agent presented a bill, payable immediately, for $600,000 in back taxes, interest, and penalties for undeclared profits from a church-run lottery. The business manager was not available to answer questions because he had been the other person in the affair and had been removed along with the monk. Wall had to take a crash course in bookkeeping to pay the IRS.

The rest of his time at Saint Bernard’s, Wall did what every priest does. He celebrated Mass, performed weddings and funerals, baptized babies. And he heard confessions, including those of other priests.

Despite the headlines, the percentage of priests who have abused minors is relatively low. Celibacy is another story. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, only 1/3 of priests said they do not waver from the celibate life. After a while, Wall stopped thinking of broken vows as something foreign to his world.

Patrick Wall

Once you see enough people fall and once you hear enough confessions of different priests, you look at yourself in the mirror and you say, “Am I really any different?” And the chances of me maintaining a celibate way of life without failure along the way are so low that ultimately, either I have to change or the system needs to change.

Carl Marziali

What about– there must a lot of priests who believe in being priests and have decided that the rule of celibacy is nonsense and so are willing to lead a double life of sorts. Was that– that wasn’t something that you considered?

Patrick Wall

No, that’s really not my personality. I’m a terrible liar. Oh, I turn red. I’m really bad. And I had seen priests who maintained heterosexual relationships with women and I saw the effects of it. Because it’s a life of contradiction, because the relationship is there, it’s exclusive, but you can’t profess it and everyone around you knows it’s going on. And that’s not happiness. That’s not a true coming together. I just couldn’t see myself doing that. That’s just not me.

Carl Marziali

After Saint Bernard’s, the assignments kept coming. The next one was an affair between a priest and a nun. After that, a new parish where a teacher had abused a student and the priest was living with his housekeeper.

Four years, four parishes, four scandals. There are good, dedicated priests out there, but they’re not the ones who get replaced. By the very nature of his job, Wall was acquiring a skewed and depressing view of the priesthood.

Carl Marziali

Did you ever ask not to be given those assignments?

Patrick Wall

Yeah, I did. And I specifically asked to be able to come back to the prep school and teach. But the needs of the monastery were so great at that point that again, it was only going to be another year. I was only going to have to go to Saint Bernard’s for another year. So it sounds like a bad construction deal, you know, two more weeks. Give me two more weeks and we’ll be done. It just kept going on, kept going on.

Carl Marziali

Meanwhile, the monks he replaced were getting exactly what Wall himself had asked for. They were going back to the monastery, permanently.

Patrick Wall

I’d run across them at community meetings and whenever we had chapter votes, and all that. And it’s hard not to be judgmental. The other thing I found hard was that my whole career path was driven by other people’s mistakes.

And that’s the last thing I ever expected a monastic life. I really expected to work in a parish for a year, to go off to grad school, come back, teach, coach football at the university, and to live a pretty darn good life of balance between prayer and teaching and working as a teacher. So they changed my career path, they changed my whole trajectory in life.

Carl Marziali

Without fully realizing it, Wall had been initiated into a brotherhood of priests known informally as fixers, or cleaners. They replaced problem priests, they hide things in the archives, they reassure the faithful. In short, they make it all go away.

Visually, he was perfect for the job. He was barrel chested, a former offensive lineman on the Saint John’s football team. He was young and friendly. He was the anti-stereotype of a troubled monk. The abbot couldn’t have found a better prospect if he had picked a model out of a catalogue.

But Wall did more than just PR. He became familiar with the law of the church called canon law. Specifically, with the different archives canon law sets up for storing and hiding information.

Patrick Wall

The first is a historical archives which is just the names, states, people, those kinds of things. Then you have the secret archives.

Carl Marziali

The secret archives. I mean, is that literally what they’re called? The secret archives? I mean, why were they set up?

Patrick Wall

They’re set up for the protection of individuals. So the bishop has the responsibility to take things that would be considered scandalous, things that might hurt individuals’ reputations, and to be able to place them there so they wouldn’t easily be exposed.

Carl Marziali

OK. When you call it the secret archives, though, it makes it sound sinister. It makes it sound like it’s there for the protection, to really protect the church. I’m not saying that’s what it is, but that’s how it sounds. What really is the purpose of these so called secret– why can’t everything be in the personnel records and then some items be labeled confidential or whatever?

Patrick Wall

Well, you’ve got to give Rome credit, I mean they have wonderful procedure. This is things that have worked out for centuries. And that has always been the secret to one of the defenses of the Church. If you don’t know what you’re asking for, they don’t have to produce it.

Carl Marziali

When you were working for the Church cleaning up these situations of abuse and having to tell parishioners some of the facts, but not all of the facts, about what was going on, did you ever feel complicit in the cover-up of all of this?

Patrick Wall

I have some regrets, but I think I did it in good faith. Because, as I was taught and as I believe, that that was my role, to help the Church in the long run and to be obedient to what I was asked to do. And it’s only later on that, as I’ve had greater experience, that I couldn’t support it any longer.

And I felt that if I was going to stay, I was going to not only support it but I was going to get deeper into it. I was going to be asked to do other assignments, to follow pedophiles. I was going to be asked to be on the finance council to try to figure out ways to mitigate the huge financial cost of childhood sexual abuse by priests and the religious.

And I remember having an epiphany and sitting on the porch at Saint Mary’s in Stillwater. And that’s why I came to the conclusion that this is pretty much going to be my career path. I’d be there for another year or two as the administrator, and then I would go on to another assignment. And I just couldn’t do it any longer.

Carl Marziali

After four years of deceiving the faithful about the extent of priests and misconduct, of protecting the institution over the health and welfare of the victims, of covering for the perpetrators and letting the problem fester, Patrick Wall decided he was on the wrong side. On July 31st, 1998, Wall quit the priesthood. He was 33 years old.

Leaving was difficult. If you want to leave honorably, you need permission, which doesn’t come easily or quickly. It took more than a year in Wall’s case. Then, once you’re out, there are practical challenges, like trying to get a job with a master of theology on your resume. In the end, it was his experience as a fixer that translated best to the real world. Wall read an Op-Ed in the LA Times by John Manley, an attorney who sues the Church on behalf of sexual abuse victims.

Patrick Wall

He essentially separated himself amongst all the different attorneys in saying that we need to protect the sheep, and not the shepherd. It’s not the problem of the victims, it’s not the problem of the particular perpetrators, per se, or some particular issue like homosexuality or whatever. The problem is within the institution itself.

Carl Marziali

By this point, Wall was convinced that lawsuits were the only way to reform the Church. He called Manley and offered to help. Soon they were on the phone constantly. Wall took him step by step through Church bureaucracy. Manley was amazed.

Patrick Wall

John didn’t know all the different documents that are out there. And then John would be working on things and he’d call me up and say, “Dude, what do I do with this? What does this mean? Where am I supposed to do with it? What are other things– where else can I look?”

And I remember, I think he was quite surprised when I showed him the penal code of canon law and exactly what we need to ask for. He just couldn’t believe that it was there. That they would have that level of sophistication.

Carl Marziali

Wall started working for Manley’s law firm full time in October of 2002. Using his knowledge of Latin and Italian, he translates and interprets church records. He helps the firm identify and request key documents, like psychological assessments of priests, from the secret archives. The fact that he switched sides, that he’s fighting the Church, doesn’t seem to trouble him. He believes he’s doing what God wants him to do, which is what he’s always believed.

There’s another part to Wall’s job at the firm, which doesn’t have anything to do with case law. Last week, he stayed on the phone with a man for an hour and a half, listening to him talk about the priest who abused him and who might still be hurting other people. Wall finds himself talking to victims about all kinds of things, everything he was not allowed to talk about before, back when he was a priest.

Patrick Wall

I feel I really do pastoral work when I’m working with victims every day. On every single issue.

Carl Marziali

Before you were part of a holy order, and now you’re working with a bunch of lawyers. And it’s hard to know these days where priests belong on the ethical ladder, but most people know exactly where to put lawyers, and so it’s just odd to hear you talk about this work being more fulfilling in some ways than what you were doing before.

Patrick Wall

Well, we’re dealing with people at the lowest ebb of where they’re at. They’re dealing with the greatest pain they’ve ever experienced. And one of the greatest things that we find is that they can no longer participate in sacramental life of the Church because of the seven sacraments.

The one thing that’s really clear is that it takes a priest to administer the sacrament. And every sacrament is either through touching or it’s through breath, through words. It’s in close proximity to the priest. And that is the symbol of their abuse. So we’re dealing with some of the most damaged people within the Church. And it’s a very fulfilling ministry, I find in being pastoral, to be with them. Because honestly, we’re one of the few symbols of hope that they have.

Carl Marziali

Patrick Wall is married now. He and his wife have a two-year-old daughter, who they plan to send to Catholic school. They all go to mass every Sunday.

Ira Glass

Carl Marziali attends mass with his family in Los Angeles.

Coming up, Enemies on our Turf. Controlling the minds of ants, of rats, and of you and me. This is not some whacked out conspiracy theory, my friend. This is science. Proof in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

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Topics: Dan Ward, Patrick Wall

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