Conflict hit the airwaves in Wright County, an hour’s drive west of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, when Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) broadcast an investigative story about a retired Catholic priest’s local work as a sexual health educator on the county payroll. Listeners reacted with alarm to allegations that he had sexually abused children while serving the Church.
Harry Walsh, who led the congregation of St. Henry’s church in Monticello, retired from the priesthood in 2011 at the age of 77.
The controversy began when MPR broadcast a story that it had obtained Church documents revealing decades-old charges of sexual abuse levied against Walsh on behalf of a 15-year old Detroit girl and 12-year old South St. Paul altar boy. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis took part in a 1996 financial settlement for the girl, but ignored the case affecting the boy, and continued to allow Walsh to work in parishes until he retired.
Walsh, who had been a priest since 1960, took a leave of absence from the Church in the early 1990s to study sexology at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexual Health in San Francisco. In 1997, he contributed to the book How I Got into Sex: Leading Researchers, Sex Therapists, Educators, Prostitutes, Sex Toy Designers, Sex Surrogates, Transsexuals, Criminologists, Clergy, and More….” By the late 1990s, in addition to his work as a priest, he was serving as a part-time community educator for the Wright County Public Health Department.
Walsh had denied the charges of sexual contact with the girl when the allegations were first made in the 1990s, and suggested that the Sexual Revolution was to blame for any misunderstanding: “’It could have happened…because it was the ‘60s, and 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.”
In the words of the local news source St.MichaelPatch.com, Walsh’s 2011 retirement from the priesthood was demanded by the Archdiocese not because of sexual conduct with children but rather his sexual involvement with another adult: “Reports show, thanks to evidence collected by MPR, that Walsh had an affair with a parishioner, a married, then eventually, [sic] divorced woman.”
Wright County Public Health Director Carol Schefers confirmed that Walsh had signed a two-year contract in 2013 with the county to provide, in a description from public records obtained by MPR, “medically accurate sexuality education, pregnancy prevention and STI prevention to high risk youth or adults.”
Schefers initially reacted to the MPR story with no clear indication as to how it would affect Walsh’s future service to the county. “Maybe it would have been helpful to know [the allegations and settlement, but] on the other hand, Harry does just education stuff for us, so I don’t know that it would have made a difference.”
The Minnesota chapter of Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issued a statement in response to the growing controversy. “We call on county officials to immediately fire him…and aggressively reach out to anyone he may have hurt while on the payroll of taxpayers.”
Within a few days of the MPR story and SNAP’s expression of concern, the county acted to suspend Walsh’s work; its Human Services Board voted unanimously to cancel his employment contract. Wright County Commissioner Charles Borrell insisted that the county was not judging Walsh’s guilt or innocence, but rather “one of our large school districts – Monticello - said they didn’t want him working with their district, so that makes it pretty hard to do the job.”
The Minnesota Catholic Defense League also weighed in on the story, accusing MPR of bad faith in reporting the story, and suggesting that the radio station’s motives were not to protect youth but rather to generate listener ratings: “We find it disturbing and completely hypocritical for MPR to criticize the church for withholding information when, in fact, they appear to be holding back information to benefit their editorial schedule.”
 Mike Schoemer, “Report: Monticello Priest Accused of Misconduct Teaches Sex Education to Wright County Teens,”St.MichaelPatch.com, December 20, 2013, accessed January 27, 2014 at http://stmichael.patch.com/groups/police-and-fire/p/report-monticello-priest-accused-of-misconduct-teaches-sex-education-to-wright-county-teens.
 Mary Lynn Smith, “Ex-priest suspended from sex education work for Wright County,” StarTribune.com, December 23, 2013, accessed January 27, 2014 at http://m.startribune.com/?id=237105661.
 “Catholic Defense League accuses MPR of hiding information in priest sex scandal,” Northiowatoday.com, December 20, 2013, accessed January 27, 2014 at http://northiowatoday.com/2013/12/20/catholic-defense-league-accuses-mpr-of-hiding-information-in-priest-sex-sex-scandal/comment-page-1/.