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Wall grew up in Clontarf, Minnesota, a rural town founded by Irish immigrants with a population of 180 about 170 miles west of St. Paul. Wall counts among his extended family dozens of relatives who entered the priesthood or convents, and his sister remains a Catholic elementary-school teacher. So it was no surprise when Wall enrolled in St. John's College, a tiny Benedictine-run Minnesota college best known for John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college-football history. The massive Wall played offensive guard on Gagliardi's team, wanting to follow Gagliardi's example and eventually coach at St. John's while simultaneously teaching. He took his priestly vows at 21 at St. John's Abbey, the monastery associated with the school. But Wall's simple life plans changed forever in 1994 when he received an early-morning visit before class. "I was brushing my teeth when I heard a knock," Wall recounts. It was Abbott Jerome Theisen, the head of St. John's. Wall was nervous. "Abbott Jerome never goes on the third floor. But he entered my room and asked, 'How would you like to be a faculty resident?'" Wall dreamed of being a faculty resident one day, a prestigious position at St. John's that put people in charge of dorms housing hundreds of students. Such an honor, however, came to those with years of service at St. John's — definitely not to a 26-year-old grad student. "Oh, yes. Someday," Wall replied to Theisen. "No, how about today?" Theisen shot back. When Wall protested that he wasn't ready, Theisen assured him the seminary would "make some adjustments." Wall was excited—he'd be the youngest faculty resident in St. John's history — but also perplexed. He asked about the status of the previous faculty resident. "He's no longer with us," Theisen told Wall. "He's been removed." "Why?" Wall replied. "I can't tell you that," Theisen said. But Wall knew. A year before, St. John's had weathered a massive sex-abuse scandal — in one day alone, nine cases came forth. He never received an official explanation from Abbot Theisen or anyone else at St. John's, but Wall knew. Last summer, after he described his transition from Church loyalist to critic on NPR's This American Life, Wall says he received a phone call. "It was the former faculty adviser's victim," he says. "He told me what had happened and thanked me. I never really knew why my life had changed until then."
Wall's career rocketed after his promotion, although in a way he never intended. He became what Catholic insiders refer to as a "fixer": a priest sent to tidy up troubled parishes, then move on to the next assignment. He replaced a pedophilic priest at one church, then went to another left nearly bankrupt thanks to a priest who funneled money from donations while maintaining an affair with a parishioner. In his final assignment, Wall replaced a priest who had maintained a sexual relationship with a nun for decades. Wall didn't want these assignments — he wanted to coach football. But officials at the Archdiocese of St. Paul, impressed by his damage-control skills, promoted him. Eventually, they made him a spokesperson for the archdiocese's sex-abuse response team. He remembers specifically the instructions given by his superiors: "This is how you're going to respond. We'll role-play and think of questions that people will ask. If we don't respond properly, the ability to raise money and attract vocations will go down." Wall eventually joined the Archdiocese of St. Paul tribunal, which presides over all sex cases in the Midwest. Later, he would learn a new term to describe what he saw on the tribunal: "monk's disease," the notion that long-term celibacy may make men more likely to become sexual predators. "I was viewing it up close," Wall says. He heard sex-abuse story after sex-abuse story but usually sided with the priest, whatever the incriminating evidence. Wall toed the official Church line until taking an assignment in 1996.
That year, Wall took a case in Monterey, California, for about a week. "The case involved a monk who had molested two brothers, ages six and seven," Wall recalls. "It was a really bad case — he was just ruthless to the boys. And as I'm leaving on the plane, we fly over the Pebble Beach Golf Course there, and I think, 'Oh, shit! I didn't get to golf there!' That's how naive I was." That's when Wall says he knew he couldn't continue. A year after his Monterey trip, he applied for and received a laity request, which stripped him of his priestly vocation. He was 33. Wall drifted from job to job for the next three years, working as an orderly in a Catholic hospital and volunteering for the San Diego district attorney's office of child-molestation cases — his own little penance for the cover-ups that haunted him. He eventually settled in Dana Point and took a job in freight sales. He still attended Mass, even got married in the Church. Wall thought his past "would just go away." Then he read Manly's Times column. "Something told me that he really had a handle on the problem," Wall says. The op-ed piece brought back Wall's past and renewed in him the sense of disgust that drove him from the priesthood. He called Manly a day after reading the article while driving up the 405 to work. "You don't know who I am from Adam, but comparing the Church and tobacco industry is right on" is how Wall remembers introducing himself to Manly. "Continue what you're doing, and if you need any help, give me a call." The two talked for about an hour, as each shared their respective life stories. A couple of weeks later, they met for lunch. Afterward, Manly did what any good attorney does when encountering a potential source: he ran a background check on Wall. A couple of months later, Manly hired Wall full-time as a researcher, where he remains today.
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