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  Bishop Will Meet with Reeling Hudson Parish
Priest's divisive tenure ended with slayings

By Kevin Harter
Pioneer Press [Wisconsin]
January 11, 2006

http://www.twincities.com/mld/pioneerpress/13596377.htm

Three emotional months after a judge found that the Rev. Ryan Erickson likely had killed two men and sexually abused a teenage boy, the bishop of the Superior Diocese will visit St. Patrick's Catholic Church on Sunday to meet parishioners still reeling from the priest's divisive tenure in Hudson, Wis.

Bishop Raphael Fliss' long-awaited trip will include private meetings with several parishioners, including members of the O'Connell family who have criticized the bishop for what they contend was an inappropriate response to the matter.

A judge ruled in October there was probable cause Erickson, 31, fatally shot mortician Dan O'Connell, 39, and 22-year-old intern James Ellison on Feb. 5, 2002, at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home. The St. Croix County judge also found that Erickson, who later committed suicide amid an advancing police investigation, likely sexually abused at least one boy and had aroused the suspicions of O'Connell, who attended St. Patrick's.

Erickson's stormy three-year tenure at the 1,800-member parish was polarizing, pitting parishioners against each other and prompting some to quit attending the church even before the priest was linked to the homicides. Fliss will attempt to heal that divide, meeting first with the parish council, then the parish, followed by individuals.

"Only good can come from people of faith coming together with hearts open to one another," said the Rev. John Parr, who has led St. Patrick's since 2004 and is credited with helping the parish confront and move beyond several recent problems.

In addition to the Hudson slayings and previous questions about Erickson's work, those other controversies include:

• Allegations by a former St. Patrick's School principal in February 2002 that an Erickson supporter harassed and threatened her the same week O'Connell and Ellison were slain. Police were called, but no charges were filed. The diocese called an emergency meeting at the time to discuss problems at the school. The principal later resigned.

• Also in 2002, the first of 11 women filed a complaint with the bishop against one of the three priests assigned to St. Patrick's, alleging that the Rev. James Dabruzzi engaged in inappropriate touching and had made sexually suggestive comments. After an investigation, Dabruzzi was barred in 2005 from presiding at Mass and suspended from all public ministry.

• The senior pastor, Peter Szleszinski, who lived in the rectory with Erickson and Dabruzzi, retired last year. He told investigators he was not aware of any wrongdoing by Erickson, but many parishioners remained skeptical.

"There is division, confusion and disarray as a result of Erickson's actions, and (Fliss) will address honest and respectful concerns," Parr said.

Some have criticized Fliss for not talking with parishioners more quickly, but Parr said he asked the bishop to delay his visit until Parr had given church members an opportunity to air their concerns.

Parr has met privately with many parishioners and held three "listening sessions" with St. Patrick's members, including some who thought the homicides and sexual abuse could have been prevented if the diocese had been more proactive with Erickson, who hanged himself in December 2004.

Those sessions included a grief counselor and human relations consultant.

"(Fliss) has been waiting for the green light," said the Rev. Philip Heslin, diocese spokesman. "Father Parr has done an excellent job of preparing the way."

The bishop's two-hour meeting with parishioners begins at 2 p.m. It will culminate a series of meetings with parish leaders and others.

Fliss already has visited churches in Ladysmith and Hurley, where Erickson had been transferred. He also met with parishioners in Somerset, where Erickson interned during his St. Paul Seminary studies. After the judge issued his findings in October, Fliss issued a written apology to the diocese for his oversight of Erickson's troubled-turned-tragic career.

Several members of St. Patrick's praised Parr's request that the bishop hold off on visiting the parish, but some still think the diocese was remiss in its handling of Erickson, who was under scrutiny in the early 1990s when the then-college student was accused of sexual misconduct. The diocese said a psychological evaluation concluded Erickson appeared healthy, thoughtful and caring and was a proper candidate for the seminary.

"I hope the animosity and anger have calmed down," said Tim Shafer, 53, who attended some of the listening sessions.

Added parishioner Mary Pat Finnegan, 44:"Father John was very wise to wait. The listening sessions have helped people feel they are being listened to.

"Initially, I felt he should have come down and got (verbally) beat up. His job was to shepherd his flock and he blew it."

Like many, Finnegan, 44, praised the work of Parr and questioned the inaction of Fliss.

"It's been frustrating. I'm disappointed. He had knowledge of Erickson's problems from e-mails and letters," Finnegan said.

"I'm hopeful that he pays attention and is honest with us," she added.

Fliss met with members of the O'Connell family Dec. 13 in Hudson, and he will talk with them again Sunday. Dan O'Connell's widow, Jennie, didn't attend the meeting last month and doesn't plan to talk with Fliss on Sunday.

"He needs to make the call. At this point, he's not asked," Jennie O'Connell said. "If he does want to talk to me, I will, but I don't feel I need to have an audience with him."

Dan O'Connell's brother, Tom O'Connell Jr., will meet with the bishop and hopes the visit will be a catalyst for change and healing, but he has doubts.

"It's a hurting parish with a lot of questions and anger. And it's been festering. This is a chance to ask the questions they deserve answers to. They have to have answers before they can heal and move forward," O'Connell said.

Parr cautioned that the bishop's visit is an important moment but not the end of the process.

"The healing process will go on for months, and, I suspect, years," Parr said

Kevin Harter can be reached at kharter@pioneerpress.com or 800-950-9080, ext. 2149.

A judge ruled in October there was probable cause that the Rev. Ryan Erickson, 31, fatally shot mortician Dan O'Connell, 39, and 22-year-old intern James Ellison on Feb. 5, 2002, at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home. The St. Croix County judge also found that Erickson, who later committed suicide amid an advancing police investigation, likely sexually abused at least one boy and had aroused the suspicions of O'Connell, who attended St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Hudson, Wis.

 
 

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