Abuse claims kept secret allowed priest to minister and teach sex ed

By Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
Dec. 19, 2013
Harry Walsh wasn't included on a recent list of priests 'credibly accused' of sexual abuse. Church leaders knew his history, yet allowed him to continue working in parishes until the fall of 2011. Today Walsh teaches sex education to troubled teenagers and vulnerable adults in Wright Co., Minn. (Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News)
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    Dec. 19, 2013 Church leaders knew Harry Walsh's history, yet allowed him to continue working in parishes until 2011

When beloved priest Harry Walsh retired two years ago, parishioners of St. Henry's Catholic Church in Monticello, Minn., decorated a VFW hall with paper shamrocks and musical notes to say goodbye.

They sang, gave speeches and cried. Walsh, then 77, had served as the parish's music minister for nearly a decade.

"You developed close personal relationships with everybody and that gave us all the ability to trust you with all of our personal lives," one person wrote on a tribute website for the Irish-born priest. "You have blessed this community immeasurably."

Harry Walsh, former pastor of St. Henry Catholic Church, during festivities in his honor Nov. 12, 2011 at the Monticello VFW Post.
Harry Walsh, former pastor of St. Henry Catholic Church in Monticello, was honored Nov. 12, 2011, at the Monticello VFW Post after leaving his role as St. Henry's music director. | Read more in a Monticello Times story, via Walsh's website (Photo courtesy of the Monticello Times)

But Walsh had a secret. He'd been accused of sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl and 12-year-old altar boy decades earlier, according to church documents obtained by MPR News, and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis contributed to a financial settlement for the girl. Nonetheless, archbishops Harry Flynn and John Nienstedt allowed him to continue working in parishes until the fall of 2011. And neither bishop called police or warned the public.

More recently Walsh wasn't included on a list of 30 "credibly accused" priests released Dec. 5 by the archdiocese. Nienstedt said the disclosure of those names was important to restoring trust and could help protect children from harm.

• The list: Archdiocese names priests credibly accused of sexual abuse

Today Walsh teaches sex education to troubled teenagers and vulnerable adults in Wright County, an hour west of the Twin Cities. He signed a new two-year, $1,508 a month contract earlier this year, according to public records, to provide "medically accurate sexuality education, pregnancy prevention and STI prevention to high risk youth or adults."

From public records: Walsh signed a new, two-year contract with the Wright Co. Human Services Agency in July to provide sex education to high-risk youth and adults. | Read the full document.

Walsh told MPR News on Wednesday that he never sexually abused children. "I'd have been shocked if I was on the list because there's nothing credible about it," he said. "If I were hiding that, you wouldn't be in my house right now; I would have been very careful."

Walsh said he left the priesthood voluntarily because he has a heart condition. "I gave almost 50 years of service," he said. "I felt that was a generous offering."

Nienstedt's failure to disclose Walsh's past is evidence that the clergy abuse scandal is not over. It also belies Nienstedt's promise of transparency and raises the question of whether more accused priests are living and working among trusting neighbors and employers.

The Rev. Harry Walsh
The Rev. Harry Walsh became pastor of Holy Trinity parish in South St. Paul in 1980. Walsh served there until March 19, 1985. Years later, allegations surfaced that he had sexually touched a 12-year-old altar boy while assigned to the parish. (The Catholic Bulletin)

Jennifer Haselberger, a former top adviser to Nienstedt who resigned in April, said the church had a moral responsibility to disclose Walsh's alleged abuse, particularly because he teaches children about sex. "That's exactly the situation in which we want to disclose that we have reasons for concern," she said.

No one told Wright County about the allegations, said Carol Schefers, the Wright County Public Health Director who signed Walsh's contract. "Maybe it would've been helpful to know that," she said. "On the other hand, Harry does just education stuff for us, so I don't know that it would have made a difference."

Schefers said she doesn't know what she'll do with the information.

For years Walsh was allowed to remain in the priesthood, even though bishops nationwide had promised in 2002 that all abusive priests would be taken out of ministry.

Nienstedt finally asked Pope Benedict XVI last year to oust Walsh when he learned of the abuse allegations in documents hidden in church archives, as well as an old internal investigation that determined Walsh had an affair with a married parishioner.

Though the records show that the archdiocese provided a financial settlement to one of Walsh's alleged victims in 1996, it ignored the other complaint.

"Unfortunately, the allegations themselves were treated with the type of skepticism that often categorized the receipt of such reports at that time," Nienstedt wrote in a March 1, 2012, letter to Cardinal William Levada, the head of the Vatican department that handles abuse claims.

The letter: Archbishop John Nienstedt wrote to Cardinal William Levada, then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, to request that the pope grant Walsh's request to be laicized, or removed from the priesthood. | Read the letter.
Cardinal William Levada
Cardinal William Levada led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department within the Vatican that handles doctrinal matters — which also includes abuse claims — from 2005-2012, under Pope Benedict XVI. (Getty Images/File 2005)

Nienstedt told the Vatican: "Father Walsh's scandalous living arrangements and his endorsement of 'optional celibacy' for clergy have continued unchecked for too long. Furthermore, the allegations regarding possible sexual abuse of minors necessitate that Father Walsh no longer hold a place of prestige and authority in any parish in the Archdiocese."

Walsh agreed to leave the priesthood, and the pope granted the request on Sept. 24, 2012, nearly five decades after Walsh's first alleged incident of child sexual abuse.

Neither Nienstedt nor Flynn could be reached to answer questions about Walsh. Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso declined an interview. He wouldn't say why Walsh was allowed to serve as a music minister or why there are no records of any reports to police. He also wouldn't say why Walsh isn't on the public list of accused priests.

"These disclosures are intended to be ongoing," the archdiocese said in a statement to MPR News. "We are currently engaged in a comprehensive review of clergy files and the list will be updated as additional announcements are made. If the archdiocese learns of additional credible claims that are substantiated, whether from the review of the clergy files from outside experts or otherwise, the disclosures will be updated on our website."

On Tuesday, Nienstedt said he's stepping aside from all public ministry as head of the Catholic Church in the Twin Cities while police investigate an allegation that he touched a boy on the buttocks in 2009. The archbishop called the claim "absolutely and entirely false."

• Related: Nienstedt, facing claim he touched boy, steps aside during investigation, denies allegation

Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché is covering Nienstedt's public tasks during the police investigation. Piché's name was copied on a letter Nienstedt wrote to Walsh on Oct. 11, 2011, about the allegations from decades earlier.

Nienstedt hasn't granted any interviews since MPR News began publishing a series of investigative reports in September. The first report found that he failed to warn parishioners of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer's sexual addiction and interest in young men. Wehmeyer was later sent to prison for sexually abusing two boys.

• MPR News investigation: Archdiocese under scrutiny

Subsequent reports showed Nienstedt and other bishops gave special payments to child-abusing priests, failed to call police about possible child pornography on a priest's computer, and protected a priest who admitted sexually assaulting several boys on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the 1970s.

Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt celebrated Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Grace parish in Edina, Minn., Dec. 15. He asked parishioners for forgiveness, saying he is sorry he's overlooked the issue of clergy sexual abuse. | Read the story, watch the video (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

The revelations have rocked the archdiocese and Nienstedt has struggled to respond. The archbishop postponed a $160 million capital campaign and hired a crisis communications firm. Several priests have asked Nienstedt to resign.

On Sunday, the archbishop made a rare public appearance, delivering a homily at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina. "I am here to apologize for the indignation that you justifiably feel," he said. "You deserve better."

He spoke briefly to reporters after Mass but didn't take questions. "I have to stand before the community and say in all honesty that I can tell people there is no one in the ministry that's going to be a danger to their child," he said. "And the only way I can do that is by hiring an outside firm to go through our files and to make sure that that's true."

Nienstedt told priests privately last week that he isn't aware of any other priests who sexually abused children.

Walsh served at Holy Redeemer parish in Detroit from 1965 until 1967. In 1994, a woman reported that Walsh had sexually abused her there when she was a 15-year-old girl. (Patricia Drury via Flickr)

An Irish priest

Rev. Harry Walsh: Assignments

1960: Ordained to the Redemptorist order, Ireland
1960-63: Redemptorist monastery, Ireland
1963-65: Davenport, Iowa
1965-67: Holy Redeemer, Detroit
1968: St. Michael, Chicago
1969-1970: St. Pius X, White Bear Lake
1970: Chicago
1970-71: Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Paul
1971-74: St. Stephen, Minneapolis (pictured)
1974-1979: St. Anne, Le Sueur
1979-1980: Archdiocese of Dublin
1980-1985:Holy Trinity, South St. Paul
1985-1991: St. Henry, Monticello

[Photo: Jennifer Simonson/MPR News]

Walsh was ordained a priest in Ireland in 1960 by a Catholic religious order called the Redemptorists. He served in Davenport, Iowa, Detroit and Chicago before arriving in Minnesota in 1969.

Church records provide conflicting accounts of Walsh's assignments. They indicate that he served at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Davenport from 1963 to 1965.

Walsh surfaces next in 1965 as pastor at Holy Redeemer Catholic church in Detroit, where he would later be accused of sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl. She reported the abuse in 1994, Haselberger said. Nienstedt told the Vatican in March 2012 that the alleged contact included "kissing, sexual touching, and simulated sexual intercourse."

Walsh denied the allegation, but said of the kissing, "It could have happened, let me put it that way, because it was the '60s, and when we'd gather for meetings, there were hugs and kisses all around. It sure certainly wasn't a sexual thing. So there could've been an affectionate kiss that got (mis)translated."

The Rev. Kevin McDonough approached him years ago about the allegation, he said, and indicated that he would investigate it. But Walsh said he never heard back. McDonough did not respond to a request for comment.

The woman received a financial settlement in 1996 from the Detroit archdiocese, the Redemptorists and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, according to Haselberger, who reviewed documents on the settlement. Walsh's file showed a payment of $15,000, she said, but it's unclear if that was the total settlement or just the Twin Cities archdiocese's portion. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Detroit said he wasn't familiar with Walsh's name and would need to research the matter further.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released a statement late Thursday saying that the incident "was resolved through at $15,000 settlement that was made solely by the Redemptorists in Glenview, Ill., not the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis."

The Rev. Harry Walsh
The Rev. Harry Walsh works with children during a 1969 summer preschool session at St. Pius X in White Bear Lake. Walsh, along with parents from St. Pius, initiated "a summer school program for pre-school age children stressing 'the beauty of God's creation and an awareness of the community'," according to a Catholic Bulletin newspaper article from July of that year. (The Catholic Bulletin)

After a brief time in Chicago, Walsh arrived in the Twin Cities at age 34 in 1969 and served at St. Pius X in White Bear Lake as an associate pastor.

At St. Pius X, he created a popular summer school for young children that emphasized "the beauty of God's creation and an awareness of community," according to an article published that year in the Catholic Bulletin. "If the children can absorb Superman and Underdog, they can absorb God and creation," Walsh told the newspaper.

Walsh served at three other Twin Cities parishes from 1970 to 1979 and spent a year in Ireland.

When he returned to the Twin Cities in 1980, parishioners at his new church, Holy Trinity in South St. Paul, organized a welcome party.

Walsh would later be accused of sexually touching a 12-year-old altar boy at Holy Trinity, Nienstedt wrote in his 2012 letter to the Vatican. The man reported the abuse to the archdiocese's top deputy, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, in 1996. But when he didn't follow up or file a lawsuit, the archdiocese dropped the complaint. No records exist of any calls to police.

Walsh denied the allegation and said he'd never heard of it. "I never had any sexual contact with a boy," he said. "I can tell you that honestly, my hand on a stack of Bibles. So that's why I'm so totally puzzled by it. That's not even my field of attraction, shall we say."

Walsh left the parish in 1985 to take a new assignment as pastor of St. Henry in Monticello, Minn. However, he ran into trouble when archdiocese leaders discovered Walsh was having an affair with a married parishioner. The archdiocese's top deputy, the Rev. Michael O'Connell, asked a parish secretary to keep an eye on Walsh to make sure the relationship had ended. It had not.

The doctorate: Walsh wrote his doctoral dissertation about mandatory celibacy and sexual ethics in the Catholic church.| Read all the documents.

Priest as "sexologist"

Walsh then made an unusual choice. In 1991, he took a leave of absence to pursue a doctorate at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexual Health in San Francisco. Nienstedt explained, "The Archdiocese supported him during this period, believing that providing Father Walsh with the opportunity to explore his sexuality academically would lead him to return to priestly ministry. Ultimately the opposite was true."

TThe archdiocese received the two abuse allegations in 1994 and 1996, while Walsh was on leave. Nienstedt later wrote that "since Father Walsh was not in active ministry at that time, no further disciplinary action was considered necessary, though the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis did remove Father Walsh's name from any public listings of priests of the Archdiocese."

The letter: Archbishop John Nienstedt detailed Walsh's history in a letter to Cardinal William Levada, then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, asking the Vatican to grant Walsh's request to be removed from the priesthood. | Read the letter.

A few years later, Walsh returned from San Francisco with an odd request. He wanted to work as a sexologist for the church. Archbishop John Roach declined.

"I think that was mystifying to everyone because no one knew quite what a sexologist would do in the church," Haselberger said.

Walsh: "How I Got Into Sex"

Walsh looked for work elsewhere and contributed to a book published in 1997 called "How I Got Into Sex: Leading Researchers, Sex Therapists, Educators, Prostitutes, Sex Toy Designers, Sex Surrogates, Transsexuals, Criminologists, Clergy, and more..."

He described a life of sexual repression, most notably during his time at a monastic boarding school for boys. Walsh wrote of staring longingly across the street at a boarding school for 500 teenage girls. "Though contact with 'the fortune five hundred' was totally outlawed, at least they provided grist for my fantasy mill during those years of confinement," he wrote. "Removed from all contact with 'members of the opposite sex,' it soon became clear that the one remaining fortress of sexual expression that needed to be conquered and leveled was 'the solitary vice of self-abuse.'"

Walsh asked his spiritual director for guidance on celibacy, and the man told him, "'Son, there's only one way to attain holiness; keep your Bible open and your fly closed,'" Walsh wrote. "Such zipper spirituality was of little support."

Although Walsh struggled with celibacy, he still became a priest.

Before he left for his first assignment in the U.S., he showed his mother a photo taken when he was three years old. She was appalled. "I was taken aback," Walsh wrote. "In the name of all the saints in Ireland, what was wrong with the photograph? Mother pointed at my crotch … Following the direction of my mother's extended forefinger, I noticed that the cotton suit was snug enough in the crotch area to reveal a tiny bulge where my three-year-old penis was located. That was Mother's problem."

She cut the photo in two and burned the bottom half. "I stared in disbelief as the disintegrating picture of my young self, consumed, like Joan of Arc, in the flames of orthodoxy," he wrote.

"I knew, at that point, that my sexual script had been written for me years before. My parents' horoscope read: This one shall be crotchless. This one shall be a priest."

Walsh went on to describe how he decided to become a sexologist after receiving therapy in the 1980s and how he still keeps a whip that he'd used to control his "venereal inclinations." He wrote that he hangs it on a nail in his bathroom.

Priest as sex educator

In the late 1990s, Walsh found work as a sex educator for the Wright County Public Health Department. But he had trouble paying his bills, so in 2001 he approached McDonough, the archbishop's top deputy.

The Rev. Kevin McDonough
The Rev. Kevin McDonough served as vicar general -- the archbishop's top deputy -- from 1991 until 2008. (AP Photo/File 2007)

As the vicar general, McDonough acted on behalf of Flynn. He enrolled Walsh in the clergy pension plan and gave him credit for his time away from ministry, according to Haselberger. Flynn also allowed Walsh to make extra money as a substitute priest in Twin Cities parishes.

When the national clergy sexual abuse scandal broke in 2002, Flynn emerged as a key figure who guided the U.S. Catholic church out of the crisis. He led a committee in Dallas that wrote a new policy called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Bishops signed the Charter, which said they would remove all abusive priests from ministry.

Flynn's chancellor, Bill Fallon, flagged Walsh as a possible "Charter priest," in 2002, according to church records. That meant Walsh should've been removed from any work as a priest or kicked out of the priesthood altogether.

Archbishop Harry Flynn
Archbishop Harry Flynn, despite his knowledge of Walsh's past and his pivotal role in drafting and enacting the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, allowed him to remain in ministry. (MPR Photo/File 2007)

Instead, he got a job at his old parish, St. Henry's, as director of music ministry. It was a busy department that included an "adult choir, several small ensembles, a teen choir, a children's choir, and a Hispanic group," according to an archived version of the parish website.

Newspaper obituaries show Walsh presided over funeral Masses in 2004 and 2005, in possible violation of the Charter.

And he continued to get into trouble. In 2004, the archdiocese received a report that Walsh had continued his sexual relationship with the adult female parishioner from years earlier, Nienstedt wrote. The complaint came from the woman's adult children. The archdiocese hired a private investigator.

Walsh claimed the woman was his housekeeper, but the investigator found no evidence of any payments. The woman admitted she shared a bed with Walsh for several months and wished they could be married. The investigator found the relationship appeared "to be incompatible with the boundaries of the Catholic church."

Yet Flynn allowed Walsh to remain a priest.

The Rev. Harry Walsh served as pastor of St. Henry parish in Monticello, Minn., from 1985 until 1991. He later returned to the church to become music minister, a post he left in 2011. (Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News)

Nienstedt takes action

Nienstedt took over as archbishop in 2008 when Flynn retired. He didn't learn of Walsh's past until Haselberger alerted him in 2010.

Haselberger advised Nienstedt on church law and ran the records department. When she arrived in 2008, she quickly realized that the archdiocese's files were a mess. She was still trying to organize them when she received a call from a priest in another state who wanted to confirm that Walsh had married a couple in a park in Indiana a few years earlier.

Jennifer Haselberger
Jennifer Haselberger is the archdiocese's former top canon lawyer. She resigned in April 2013. (Jennifer Simonson/MPR News)

Haselberger looked in Walsh's file and found the private investigator's report about the female parishioner. She told Nienstedt. "What I really struggled with was just the absolute hypocrisy of it," she said.

Nienstedt shared Haselberger's concern, she said, and urged Walsh to return to a celibate life. But Walsh ignored the archbishop, insisted that his relationship with the former parishioner wasn't sexual and continued to live with the woman, Haselberger said. Walsh claimed to the investigator that he was protecting her from an abusive ex-husband.

"He kept referring to her having a lifetime restraining order against her previous spouse, which anybody familiar with restraining orders or the judicial system at all knows is just not even possible," Haselberger said.

Nienstedt grew increasingly frustrated. He wrote of Walsh: "His responses to my endeavors are best categorized as lies, obstruction, and a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the harm that he has caused and continues to cause to the parish of Saint Henry and to this local Church."

In 2010, the archbishop told Walsh that he could either resign voluntarily from the priesthood or be kicked out. Walsh agreed to resign but didn't.

The archdiocese then received a disturbing phone call. A woman who said she'd accused Walsh decades ago of sexually abusing her as a teenager in Detroit was upset when she searched for Walsh's name online and found him serving as a music minister, Haselberger said.

It was the first time Haselberger heard of any child sexual abuse allegations against Walsh. She searched the chancery archives and found documents on the Detroit claim and the complaint from the former altar boy.

"Our focus immediately changed," Haselberger said.

Nienstedt wrote a letter to Walsh alerting him to the allegations and ordering him to step down as music minister until the Vatican made a decision about whether to remove him from the priesthood.

Nienstedt copied auxiliary bishop Piché, vicar general Peter Laird, and St. Henry's pastor, the Rev. Anthony VanderLoop. Laird, who resigned in October, could not be reached for comment.

On Wednesday VanderLoop declined to talk about Walsh and directed all questions to the archdiocese. He wouldn't say whether he thought his parishioners had the right to be informed of abuse allegations.

After Walsh received the letter from the archbishop, he submitted his voluntary resignation to the Vatican, Haselberger said, after first checking to make sure that he would still receive his monthly $744.17 pension. He would.

Nienstedt wrote his own three-page letter to the Vatican detailing the child sex abuse allegations and asking the pope to accept Walsh's resignation.

Walsh said he doesn't miss the priesthood. "I'd decided that I'd given 50 years and it was time to do my own thing," he said.

Editor's note: This story was updated Dec. 20, 2013, to include a statement from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released late Thursday, Dec. 19, after this story was published, regarding a $15,000 settlement made to an alleged victim of Harry Walsh.

Sasha Aslanian, Mike Cronin, Meg Martin, Tom Scheck and Laura Yuen contributed to this report.

Harry Walsh: Documents, dissertation and public records