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Church in Crisis

Former priest is canon law expert for abuse suits

How good a canonist is Patrick Wall? The answer may lie in another question: “How many priests do you know who were laicized in the second half of the 1990s?” Wall was, and he was able to land that new status because, he said, “I knew all the judges, I knew all the people who would hand carry all the documents, I knew an extremely good canon lawyer to represent me, and I also knew what I had to say within the documents.”

In 2001, four years after he left the priesthood, Wall was driving along Southern California’s Interstate 405 when he called lawyer John Manly. He’d read an op-ed piece by Manly, was impressed, and wanted to tell him so. Manly had focused on the issue of U.S. bishops putting known sexual predator wolves back into the sheep pen, said Wall. “And while there aren’t that many wolves,” he said, “the wolves that are there are extremely vicious.

“So I called [Manly] to let him know he was on track, ‘keep going,’ and offered that if you ever have any canonical questions, give me a call,” he said.

A couple of months later, former Benedictine Wall was on Manly’s staff as canon law expert in the sex abuse suits.

In the early 1990s as a monk at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, Wall’s first assignment was to fill in for a priest who “had ‘difficulties,’ so to speak. All my five parish assignments followed pedophiles,” he said.

In the mid-1990s Wall went to Rome for further studies in canon law at the Gregorian. He subsequently left the priesthood. He worked for a while at the district attorney’s office in San Diego, “just a county job,” he said, before switching to a career in sales.

Wall now works with attorneys in Manly’s office “to ensure the plaintiff is suing the correct entities in the church and, second, that we’re suing all the entities.”

Beyond that, he provides Manly with the relevant accompanying canon law background to each step of the civil case.

“You hear the argument that these things happened 20 and 30 years ago during the sexual revolution, that that’s when all these different people were doing these things,” said Wall. “But I think the reality is that it takes [victims] at least 20 years to come forward,” he said. People being victimized more recently will not come forward until some form of maturation occurs, said Wall, “and one thing that triggers that, I think, is when they have their own children.

“The bishops just will not accept the fact,” he summarized, “that just as there’s a normal percentage of alcoholics in the clergy, there’s going to be a normal percentage of pedophiles. The irony is that you have highly trained people, the bishops, who understand human nature. I spent six years in the confessional box,” he said. “We know what human nature is all about after a while. Why would you come to any assumption that you would have no problems occurring in the future?”

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002