5 priests suspected in ’02 were left off archdiocese's list

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2013 - 6:41 AM

But they were named in internal archdiocesan memo on parishes with history of clergy sex abuse.

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John Nienstedt, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Five priests named in a 2002 archdiocesan internal memo about parishes with “some connection to a history of clergy sexual abuse” were not on the list published earlier this month by Archbishop John Nienstedt.

One of the men in the 2002 memo but excluded from Nienstedt’s list is former cleric Harry Walsh, a native of Ireland who has left the priesthood and now teaches sex education for Wright County.

Nienstedt said Thursday evening in a statement that the list he issued Dec. 5 “was not intended to be complete or final.” He didn’t explain why Walsh’s name was not on the list or been added since its initial release. Nienstedt said reviews of three other priests have not yet been done. A review of the fifth priest, who is still active in ministry at an east metro church, concluded there was “no credible or substantiated claim of sexual abuse of a minor.”

The August 2002 memo names 17 men as “priests with known abuse histories.” Two of those 17 are missing from Nienstedt’s list: the late Revs. Ambrose Filbin and Harold Whittet.

Three other priests, including Walsh, were grouped under a heading in the 2002 memo that described them as “priests with disputed claims, marginal behavior or undue attention.”

‘Lancing the boil’

The 2002 memo from the Rev. Kevin McDonough, a former vicar general, to then-Archbishop Harry Flynn proposed a communications campaign to notify parish leaders of abuse histories at their churches. McDonough described it as “lancing the boil.”

“We have a significant number of parishes that were served at one time or another … by priests with a history of sexual abuse of minors,” the memo said.

The campaign might spur unknown victims to report abuse and help “break the unhealthy secrets that often remain in such parishes,” the memo said.

“On one or more occasions this summer, our failure to do so in specific instances has been viewed as part of a ‘coverup.’ Of course, that failure was not a coverup, but rather lack of time and resources to follow up,” the memo said.

A “further motivator” for the proposed campaign was to head off journalists who were trying to uncover the archdiocese’s list of known offenders, the memo said. “Even if we do not pre-emptively release all of that information ourselves (“publish the list”), we are going to have to deal with its disclosure sooner or later,” the vicar general wrote.

Nienstedt released the list earlier this month under mounting public pressure after more recent allegations of clergy sex abuse came to light this fall. The list was compiled in 2004 as part of a national reform effort by the Catholic Church in the United States and was to include all priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse up to that point. Ramsey County District Judge John Van de North has given the archdiocese until Jan. 6 to name any priests added to the list since then.

Victims’ advocates already have criticized the list as being incomplete.

“These are the type of documents that the archdiocese needs to produce to the St. Paul Police Department and produce to the public so that kids can be safe,” said Patrick Wall, a former monk and victims’ advocate who works for St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson.

The memo did not include any details of abuse or allegations. It merely listed the parishes where the named priests were known to have served. Filbin served at St. Pius X in White Bear Lake, St. Helena in Minneapolis, St. Ignatius in Annandale, St. Bridget in Lindstrom and in Lake Benton, Eden Valley and Northfield, the memo said. Whittet served at St. Augustine in South St. Paul and St. Rose of Lima in Roseville, the memo said.

McDonough proposed in his memo that Patricia Gries, a former administrator in the archdiocese, be hired to organize the campaign. But Gries said Thursday she was never contacted about the assignment and the archdiocese did not answer whether the proposal was carried out.

Allegations ‘unfounded’

Walsh issued a statement Thursday saying “any allegations of abuse by me are unfounded.” Walsh, 79, said that he petitioned to leave the priesthood in 2010 and that his decision had nothing to do with two allegations of child abuse in his file.

Nienstedt said Thursday that he wasn’t aware of two sexual child abuse allegations against Walsh until 2010. One of the cases, dating to Walsh’s service in Detroit decades ago, resulted in a monetary settlement for the alleged victim, the archbishop said.

Walsh went public in a 2004 HBO documentary with his view that the Catholic Church betrayed priests by isolating them from sexual intimacy and love. While a priest, Walsh obtained a doctorate in human sexuality. He contended in the documentary that celibacy encouraged a state of arrested development in priests.

Wright County Public Health Director Carol Schefers said Walsh has been teaching birth control, sexual disease prevention and human sexuality for the Wright County Human Services Agency in Buffalo for the past 16 years. She said his employment is under review in light of the recently disclosed sexual abuse allegations, but she has no concerns for the safety of any of the clients he has served.

“He’s a very good educator,” Schefers said.

She said Walsh should have previously disclosed to the county that he faced an abuse allegation from his time in Detroit. She said Walsh was unaware of the second allegation against him until very recently. But she said the county has received only praise about his sex education work, which is always carried out in settings where other supervising adults are present. “There hasn’t be a single complaint,” she said.

According to Walsh’s latest contract with the county, he works with high-risk youth, developmentally disabled people who live in group homes, recovering addicts and adult inmates at the Wright County jail.

 

Staff writer Richard Meryhew contributed to this report.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213

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