Family sues Diocese of Superior, claiming wrongful death Published Thursday, December 14, 2006 4:28:09 PM Central Time
HUDSON,Wis. (AP) -- The family of one of two men believed killed by a RomanCatholic priest nearly four years ago filed a wrongful death lawsuitagainst the Diocese of Superior Tuesday, claiming church leaders knewabout the priest's questionable behavior but did nothing.
Carstenand Sally Ellison, of Barron, seek unspecified damages for the loss oftheir 22-year-old son, James, said their attorney Jeff Anderson.
"Their goal is to hold the diocese accountable," Anderson said.
If theRev. Ryan Erickson had been removed from the priesthood or reported topolice, "neither of these young men would have lost their life," hesaid.
JamesEllison, an intern, and funeral director Daniel O'Connell, 39, werefatally shot Feb. 5, 2002, at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home inHudson.
Erickson,31, who had been a priest at St. Patrick's Church in Hudson, hangedhimself in December 2004 while at a new assignment in Hurley, just daysafter police questioned him about the slayings.
In October2005, St. Croix County Circuit Judge Eric Lundell reviewed evidence andheard testimony before ruling there was probable cause that Ericksonshot the two men.
St. CroixCounty District Attorney Eric Johnson has said evidence suggestedO'Connell learned the priest was sexually abusing someone, wasproviding alcohol to minors, or both.
Somechurch members have publicly wondered whether the killings could havebeen prevented had the diocese acted when parishioners complained aboutErickson, who was ordained in 2000 and began his career at the Hudsonchurch. Erickson drew criticism from some over his behavior andconservative religious views.
Andersonsaid Tuesday that Erickson demonstrated some "bizarre" behaviors,including sexual misconduct, that could have predicted eventualproblems, and the diocese did nothing.
The lawsuit names Bishop Raphael Fliss as one of the defendants, Anderson said.
The Rev.Philip Heslin, a spokesman for the Superior Diocese, declined commentTuesday until the diocese's attorneys reviewed the lawsuit. "We haven'tbeen served yet," Heslin said.
In ameeting with about 700 people at St. Patrick's Catholic Church nearly ayear ago, Fliss apologized for the way the diocese handled Erickson.The bishop said he was accountable for the "lack of proper supervisionand for all else that I failed to see, heed and act upon."
The Ellison family is Lutheran. Dan O'Connell was Roman Catholic.
O'Connell'sfamily has filed a separate lawsuit against nearly 200 bishops andother church officials, asking them to disclose the names of abusivepriests.
The claimseeks to prevent clergy sex abuse by forcing the church hierarchy todisclose the names and locations of abusive priests. Anderson is alsothe attorney for the O'Connell family.
TheSurvivors Network for those Abused by Priests issued a statementTuesday supporting the Ellison family's decision and praising thefamily for establishing a nonprofit foundation that would get any moneyawarded in the lawsuit.
"For thesefamilies to have to bear the pain of the injustice of how bishopsprotect and embolden child molesters like Erickson is unacceptable andcannot be allowed to stand," said Peter Isely, a spokesman for thegroup.
Thefoundation would fund programs to prevent child sexual abuse andprovide counseling for those who have been abused, Sally Ellison saidin a statement. "It is our hope that some good can still come out ofthis tragedy."
The monetary loss to the Ellison family is "incalculable," Anderson said. "That is something for the jury to decide later."
In rulingsin the 1990s, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that religiousorganizations were immune from civil suits over their hiring practices,on grounds that such legal action would violate the First Amendmentprohibition against government interference with religion.
Andersonsaid the civil lawsuit filed Tuesday was different from sex abuse casesthat have been thrown out of court in Wisconsin.
"I don't believe there are any legitimate legal barriers to this action," Anderson said.
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