Long, Unusual Journey for Accused Minnesota Priest Turned Sexologist
By Madeleine Baran
Duluth News Tribune
December 27, 2013
|After serving as a priest at several parishes across the Midwest, Harry Walsh retired as a music minister in Monticello, Minn., two years ago and currently teaches sex education in Wright County, Minnesota. (Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News)|
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.”
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, resulting in a financial settlement for the girl, according to church documents obtained by MPR News. Nonetheless, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis 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’s name was not included on a list of 30 “credibly accused” priests released Dec. 5 by the archdiocese.
Until this week, Walsh taught 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.”
On Tuesday, after MPR broadcast its first report about Walsh, Wright County officials met and voted unanimously to cancel his contract.
“They didn’t want to work with him anymore,” said Charlie Borell, a Wright County commissioner. “And it kind of makes it real difficult to do the job after that.”
Noting that the county had had “nothing but good results” with Walsh, Borell added: “They’ve never had one incident, so … we’re not casting any kind of guilt or anything on him at all.”
Walsh told MPR News last week 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 raises questions about the archbishop’s promise of transparency and whether there are more accused priests still undisclosed by the church.
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 has been teaching children about sex.
“That’s exactly the situation in which we want to disclose that we have reasons for concern,” she said.
Nienstedt 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.
“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.
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.
An Irish priest
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, the archbishop’s top deputy, approached him years ago about the allegation, Walsh 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 showing a payment of $15,000. In a statement to the News Tribune, the St. Paul and Minneapolis church disputes contributing to the settlement. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit said he wasn’t familiar with Walsh’s name and would need to research the matter further.
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. He 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. It was at that parish that Walsh would later be accused of sexually touching the 12-year-old boy, according to Nienstedt’s 2012 letter to the Vatican. The man reported the abuse to 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. However, an archdiocese investigation discovered Walsh was having an affair with a married parishioner. Another archdiocese official, 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.
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.”
The 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.”
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 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. Although Walsh struggled with celibacy, he still became a priest.
Walsh said he decided to become a sexologist after receiving therapy in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, he found work as a sex educator for the Wright County Public Health Department. But he had trouble paying his bills, so in 2001 approached McDonough.
As the vicar general, McDonough 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 have been removed from any work as a priest or kicked out of the priesthood altogether.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Archdiocese officials initially declined comment to MPR when the network first broadcast its report on Walsh late last week. Subsequently, archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso responded to the News Tribune with the following statement:
“The archbishop did not know of the allegations relating to Walsh’s alleged sexual abuse of a minor until 2010. The archbishop informed Walsh (who was then no longer in active ministry) that he could either choose to request a dispensation from the obligations of Holy Orders, or the archdiocese would seek his dismissal through the appropriate canonical process. Walsh chose to request a dispensation and he was subsequently laicized.
“Minnesota law and the archdiocese’s policies at the time did not obligate the archdiocese to report these dated allegations to police. In accordance with our present policy, we will report all past and present credible claims of sexual abuse of minors to the police as our file review continues.
“By the time the allegations were made known, the alleged abuse had occurred decades before, not within the preceding three years, the period required by law. Indeed, both alleged incidents occurred prior to Walsh’s leave of absence in 1991 and the first alleged incident occurred in Detroit and was resolved through a $15,000 settlement that was made solely by the Redemptorists in Glenview, Illinois, not the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“The statement … that the Walsh story contradicts ‘Nienstedt’s promise of transparency’ is false and disingenuous for two reasons. First, the initial Dec. 5 disclosure, as ordered by the court, primarily concerned the … list previously compiled in 2004. Walsh was not on that list. Second, the archdiocese made it clear on Dec. 5 that the file reviews were ongoing and that the initial list was not intended to be complete or final.”
In a postscript, Accurso added that the archdiocese is “currently engaged in a comprehensive review of clergy files and the list will be updated as additional announcements are made.”
On Dec. 16, Nienstedt announced he was stepping down 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.” Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche is covering Nienstedt’s public tasks during the police investigation.
The day before he stepped aside, Nienstedt 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.”
MPR News reporters Sasha Aslanian, Mike Cronin, Meg Matin, Tom Scheck and Laura Yuen contributed to this report, which was also edited by the News Tribune.