Sex Abuser’s Presence in Taos Raises Questions
By Colleen Heild
September 21, 2019
The evening of Sept. 14, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Taos held a “healing Mass” for victims of clergy sexual and other abuse.
The next day, an admitted child sex abuser priest from California attended another special parish function – this time to celebrate the opening of the new proposed Benedictine monastery on the grounds of church property – just across the street from a public elementary school. Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester officiated.
More than 15 years ago, Milton Walsh, who is described as a retired priest who isn’t permitted to “present” himself as one, was indicted on charges of molesting a 13-year-old boy in Northern California in 1984. His criminal prosecution was dropped after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that would have extended the statute of limitations on certain sex crimes against children.
The victim, a former altar boy, eventually received an out-of-court settlement in a civil lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2003.
Back then, the church promised to keep Walsh away from children and in “academic” settings, the victim’s lawyer told the Journal this week. In recent years, lawyers who represent victims of clergy sexual abuse and track offenders have listed Walsh’s whereabouts and his access to children as “unknown.”
Now, questions have surfaced about his presence in Taos.
|Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester blesses the new Monastery of San Juan Diego in Taos on Aug. 15. (Colleen Heild/Albuquerque Journal)|
The Taos monastery, located in a refurbished convent, is to be the new home for a group of Benedictine monks with whom Walsh stayed last year at the isolated Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu in northern New Mexico.
A Journal reporter in mid-August asked for Walsh at the new Monastery of San Juan Diego in Taos and was told he would move in on Sept. 8, and in the meantime he was staying at the Madonna Retreat Center on the Archdiocese of Santa Fe campus in Albuquerque. The center is adjacent to the St. Pius X High School campus.
On Sunday, the Rev. Simeon Cook, who had lived at the Christ in the Desert Abbey where Walsh stayed, also attended the Taos monastery ceremonies. He told the Journal he heard that Walsh “may be trying it out” at the new monastery. If so, Cook said, he thought Walsh could “make a contribution” there.
But when approached by the Journal at the ceremony, both Walsh and Wester denied that Walsh lived there.
They said his home was in San Francisco – although Walsh told the Journal he might be traveling back and forth from San Francisco to the Taos monastery as he considered a “monastic” lifestyle.
“He’s not living here. He’s not going to live here. He lives in San Francisco,” Wester said, adding that Walsh had been staying at the Abiquiu monastery only “temporarily.”
In an emailed statement on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese told the Journal that Walsh had been “visiting his friends there for several days. It is not a formal monastery, but is in the first stages of becoming one. Walsh is not a member of the community now, nor will he ever be.”
Walsh is not required to register as a sex offender and is not restricted by law from living near children.
Walsh, 67, told the Journal he has known Wester since both men were studying for the priesthood more than 40 years ago. Wester was two years ahead of him at St. John’s Seminary in Mountain View, Calif.
Walsh left the Abiquiu monastery last year, and this summer several other Benedictine monks also departed and received Archdiocese permission to establish their new monastery next to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church near Taos plaza.
The two-story building was once a convent for the Sisters of Loretto until about 1976, and in recent years has been used for meetings of a Catholic youth group. Just west of the parish property is the Enos Garcia Elementary School.
Last Sunday, the Archbishop celebrated a special Mass at the church and later blessed the new monastery in a public ceremony. Walsh stood outside takings photos with a cellphone, then motioned the crowd of several dozen people to head to the parish hall for refreshments.
One unidentified man in the crowd called out to him, “Fr. Milton.”
Walsh downplayed his presence at the ceremony. He said he had no assigned room at the monastery.
Asked whether he understood there might be a concern about his staying at the monastery when it was in proximity to the school, Walsh said he understood that “everybody’s so on edge” about clergy sexual abuse.
Mike Brown, spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told the Journal Walsh is a “retired, out-of-ministry priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.” Though still a priest, Brown said Walsh “may not present himself as a priest.”
“I did briefly connect with Milt on the phone and it sounds like you got a pretty thorough interview with him and Archbishop Wester,” Brown told the Journal in an email.
Diane Josephs is a San Francisco-based attorney who sued the Archdiocese of San Francisco on behalf of the former altar boy who decades ago told his family Walsh had molested him several times, including on his 13th birthday in 1984.
She said if Walsh does live at the Taos monastery, “That is disturbing for me.”
“I understand that we have to allow people to attempt to regain a life,” she said. “But I think there should be no opportunity to be around children….”
Josephs said there was “very little dispute about the underlying facts” of her client’s case.
“There was a tape recording made (by police.) He (Walsh) claims it was a solo incident and … he actually gave credit to (the victim) that ‘thank goodness, he enlightened him so much.’ ”
The assaults occurred when Walsh returned to California on break from doctoral studies in Rome.
The boy told his family what occurred and “although they were very, very Catholic, they believed their son and he did report early on,” Josephs said.
Walsh was indicted in October 2002.
News accounts state that Walsh made incriminating statements about the alleged abuse in a phone conversation with the boy that was secretly recorded by Novato, Calif., police. A transcript of the call shows he apologized for his actions.
“I’ve gotten some professional help with it,” Walsh told the victim, “but I’m also just aware of the fact that, uh, I need to make sure I don’t put myself in situations, you know, with anyone of any age that … I might go over the line with.”
A judge determined there was enough evidence to justify a trial for Walsh, but the case was dismissed in July 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the California law under which Walsh was criminally charged was unconstitutional.
After the civil lawsuit ended, “He (Walsh) basically was sent away,” Josephs said.
“He was what was thought to be someone heading toward a very high position in the Catholic Church and a very bright, prodigious writer,” Josephs said. “He was thought to be one of their stars.”
The Archbishop of San Francisco back then said in a deposition that Walsh wasn’t “a serial perpetrator” and he didn’t think he would reoffend.
Nevertheless, Josephs said, “the church maintained that he was not going to be in a position to ever cause any danger to children. That he would be in academic positions.”
Walsh is the author of at least five books about the Catholic church and other religious topics. According to his published biography, he holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome.
For many years he taught theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, and from 1989 to 1997 was pastor of the Cathedral of St. Mary in San Francisco.
Josephs said Walsh is charming, articulate and “so talented.”
But, she added, “I would like to believe the church is making sure he’s not put in an opportunity to use his position to perpetrate any further acts.”