Connect to share and comment
The Vatican has been reining in the progressive leadership of American nuns, creating a political test of wills over the future of a faith with one billion adherents worldwide as it braces for an historic papal transition. Described as a modern ‘Inquisition,’ this punitive campaign against the nuns lands on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and raises fundamental questions about the mission of a global church and the role of nuns who were inspired by Vatican II in taking the social justice gospel directly to the world’s poor.
The Catholic priest and lawyer offers counsel to US nuns battling the Vatican as well as church leaders grappling with the sex abuse crisis.
Dan Ward is by any measure a complex man. The lawyer-priest righteously helps nuns on property matters and how to deal with a Vatican investigation.
A canonist and civil lawyer, he has also done extensive defense work for clergy sex offenders and their communities. He refused interview requests.
“It’s a little like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality — doing good for the nuns, while helping bishops or religious superiors deal with their sex offenders,” said Pat Wall, who was a young protégé to Ward at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota in the early 1980s.
Back then, Father Ward was advising religious communities in the early wave of abuse litigation. He told Wall “to get any case settled before it’s filed. You do not want to get involved in the civil discovery process.”
Ward, who leads the legal team of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes (RCRI), has ended up opposite his former student, Wall, in several civil cases. Ward’s work for nuns, says Wall, has been secondary to “his biggest role in the last 25 years — as a consultant lawyer to various monasteries, dioceses and churches in defending them in cases of sexual abuse. Ward has functioned on every single level on the defense side.”
Sister Mary David Walgenbach is the head of the Holy Wisdom Monastery, an ecumenical institution that broke away from the Catholic Church, but with Ward’s help, held onto its land.
“I have the utmost regard for what Dan Ward and RCRI [Resource Center for Religious Institutes] have done for women religious,” said Walgenbach.
“He’s worked tirelessly for communities dealing with sexual abuse, helping victims and communities getting back on their feet. He’s laid down his life for the church with all of its frailties,” she said.
But Ward also has critics. Last fall, four people accused Ward of unwanted sexual advances against them in the 1970s when they were college students at St. John’s in Collegeville, where he taught at the time. They sent statements to the abbot, according to letters posted by Patrick J. Marker, of Seattle, on BehindthePineCurtain.com.
The website excoriates the abbey for concealing abusive monks. In 2002, the abbey announced internal sanctions against 12 monks whose victims secured legal settlements. Marker, who studied at Collegeville, is an abuse survivor who received a legal settlement in 1989. He says that his purpose in posting the complaints “is to get him removed — not a lawsuit. Dan Ward helped shield various sexual perpetrators.”
Despite the allegations, Walgenbach said, “I can’t say enough good things about the man. I am sorry he has to pay the price” of the group, RCRI. It was named by William Cardinal Levada in his so-called “Doctrinal Assessment” of April 2012 when the Vatican investigated the RCRI for its ties to Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which was at the center of Levada’s probe.
The accusations against Ward surfaced six months after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith posted its “Doctrinal Assessment.”
Sister Longo, the RCRI board president, said in a statement by email, “Many of us on the RCRI Board have known Father Dan Ward for many years, both personally and professionally, and have nothing but the highest regard for him and his integrity.”
St. John’s Abbey responded to questions about Ward with a statement saying that he “has not committed any act of sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult. There is no known investigation of Father Daniel being conducted by any law enforcement, public agency or ecclesiastical body.”
The order said, “the website operator (Marker) has engaged in a campaign to condemn Father Daniel to his colleagues and the public without any evidence.”
To date no legal action has arisen. Ward continues his work supporting nuns in various land matters.
In addition to his work for the Holy Wisdom Monastery, Ward has also assisted nuns in Sacramento, California, in the selling of a school, according to a spokesman for Bishop Jaime Soto.
In 2009, Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) religious order, which had run a popular girls’ high school called Loretto, abruptly announced that the school would close.
The IBVM motherhouse in Wheaton, Illinois had been reduced to 80 sisters, facing elder care expenses. The decision to sell Loretto followed a fundraising campaign of several years that drew nearly $5 million for renovation of school property. The closure drew heavy media coverage.
Over objections by the board, donors, parents and alumni, the sisters sold Loretto to a charter school for a reported $8 million, netting $3 million. When donors and others sued the nuns to recoup a share of proceeds, Bishop Soto joined the suit, arguing that the diocese deserved compensation for its help in the renovation.
A California superior court rejected the suit.
Although Ward was not a defense counsel on the case, his legal architecture prevailed — just as it did at Holy Wisdom in Westport, Wisconsin.
GlobalPost Vatican correspondent Jason Berry, is author of “Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church,” which received Investigative Reporters and Editors 2011 Book Award. This Special Report is supported in part by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, sponsored by the Knight Program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism; the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.