Catholic Church in Oregon settles abuse claims

Wrongful death case focuses on priest in mortuary deaths

Pioneer Press, St. Paul/December 11, 2006
By Keven Harter

Frustrated with what they see as inaction and lack of concern for victims of clergy sexual abuse, the family of one of the two men likely killed by a Hudson priest in 2002 "reluctantly" filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday against the Diocese of Superior.

The attorney for Carsten and Sally Ellison filed the lawsuit in St. Croix County Circuit Court seeking unspecified damages from the Roman Catholic diocese. The Barron, Wis., family hopes to use any money from a verdict or settlement to establish the James Ellison Foundation for the Protection of Children.

"We do not want blood money. No proceeds will ever be used for our personal use," said Carsten Ellison, noting that the statute of limitations for filing was near. "If we didn't do something, it just all goes away. We felt we needed to do something for James. It was such a terrible crime. Someone needs to be accountable, to take responsibility for the deaths of our son and Dan O'Connell."

Diocese officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Hudson funeral director Dan O'Connell and the Ellisons' 22-year-old son, a University of Minnesota mortuary science intern, were shot to death about five years ago at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home. Investigators say the likely killer was the Rev. Ryan Erickson.

Erickson, who was assigned to St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Hudson at the time of the homicides, had an extensive firearms collection and a history of excessive drinking, mental instability and alleged sexual abuse.

"The lawsuit was filed against the diocese and Bishop (Raphael) Fliss for failure to heed the warning signs of this psychopath and sociopath," said Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul-based attorney for the Ellisons.

"This family agonized over this decision, but they are committed to preventing this from happening to others," said Anderson, who is nationally known for representing victims of clergy abuse. "This is the best and only option for them now to seek accountability from the church."

Anderson also represents the family of Dan O'Connell, which has filed a lawsuit seeking some 5,000 names of clergymen accused of molestation. The suit, naming all U.S. Catholic bishops, seeks no financial damages, only the names. The family plans to publish them.

Investigators believe Erickson killed O'Connell, 39, because the St. Patrick's parishioner may have confronted Erickson with concerns or evidence of the priest's sexual abuse of children. Ellison, who had stopped by the funeral home on Feb. 5, 2002, to have internship papers signed, was killed when he entered O'Connell's office, investigators have said.

The wrongful death lawsuit was assigned to St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell, who ruled in October 2005 that there was overwhelming circumstantial evidence showing that Erickson, who committed suicide in December 2004 after being questioned by police, had murdered the two men.

The Ellisons' lawsuit contends the diocese was fully aware of allegations against Erickson but did nothing. Diocesan leaders allowed him to be ordained despite the concerns of some of his seminary professors, the suit says.

The diocese then placed Erickson at St. Patrick's parish without disclosing any information regarding his past to its parishioners or clergy. The bishop later transferred Erickson to Ladysmith and then Hurley, where the 31-year-old priest hanged himself.

"Our son did not have to die. It was not a car accident. It could have been prevented," Sally Ellison said.

"It is our hope that some good can still come out of this tragedy," she added. "We want to do what we can to prevent child abuse, and to provide counseling and after-care for those who have been abused. That is our vision for the foundation."

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