James Ellison's Parents File Suit, Allege Diocese Was Negligent
By Jana Hollingsworth and Judy Wiff
December 13, 2006
Carsten and Sally Ellison hope to prevent the kind of abuse that they believe led to their son's death.
The parents of 22-year-old James Ellison, who was shot to death at a Hudson mortuary Feb. 5, 2002, have filed a wrongful death suit against the Catholic Diocese of Superior.
The complaint alleges that Ellison was killed by Father Ryan Erickson, probably because he saw Erickson shoot his supervisor, mortician Dan O'Connell. It also claims that the Superior Diocese knew about an alleged sexual assault committed by Erickson and never disclosed the information.
In the civil lawsuit, filed Tuesday, the Ellisons of Barron, Wis., are asking for an unspecified amount of damages for medical expenses, funeral costs and loss of society and companionship. Wisconsin lawsuits don't generally ask for a specific dollar amount.
Attorneys for the Superior Diocese had not yet received the summons Tuesday night, according to Rev. Philip Heslin, spokesman for the Diocese. "We're awaiting their [lawyers] reaction and analysis of whatever's going to be," he said.
The suit surmises that Ellison, an intern at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home, was shot because he "either witnessed Dan O'Connell being shot, heard the gunshots or witnessed the immediate aftermath of the shooting."
The suit claims Erickson fired a first shot at Ellison, roughly at head level. When that shot missed, according to the complaint, Erickson fired a second, lethal shot.
In October 2005, St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell ruled there was probable cause to believe Erickson killed O'Connell and Ellison and that the murders were premeditated.
Erickson hanged himself outside his residence in Hurley in December 2004, days after being questioned by police and FBI agents.
The complaint says O'Connell and Erickson argued Feb. 1, 2002, after O'Connell learned Erickson had been accused of abusing children.
The suit alleges negligent infliction of distress, saying that Ellison must have "suffered severe emotional distress," knowing he would likely die.
The suit also charges Erickson's church supervisors with wrongful death, saying they had enough evidence to know that Erickson "was unfit for the priesthood and that, once a priest, he molested children, abused alcohol, was violent and abusive and had a propensity to use firearms."
"If Bishop (Rafael) Fliss had been more concerned about the souls of the young people instead of trying to create or protect the brotherhood, the Ellisons would not be in the deep sorrow that they are," said Bob Schwiderski, director of Minnesota's Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's complete mismanagement & and just another example of the failures of that bishop."
The Ellisons filed the complaint after hearing details of the crime from investigators.
"We felt that this was the only thing to do to make somebody accountable for James' and Dan's deaths," Sally Ellison said.
"It didn't have to happen. If people had been doing their job, and had things in place within the church to screen out people like this from getting into those positions & Dan and James would not be dead."
The Ellisons plan to give any money awarded to the James Ellison Foundation for the Protection of Children, a nonprofit they established that will offer protection and counseling to abuse victims.
Sally Ellison said the couple is trying to raise awareness of the abuse problem within the Catholic Church, and wouldn't want any settlement money for the family, saying it would feel like "blood money" "paying you off for what they did to your son," she said. "But nobody's taking responsibility & this is something we can do as his parents."
Erickson was serving St. Patrick Church in Hudson when O'Connell and Ellison were murdered. He was later assigned to St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Parish in Hurley.
The lawsuit was filed by St. Paul attorneys Richard Jasperson and Jeffrey R. Anderson.
Carsten Ellison said his family is uncomfortable filing a lawsuit, but felt it was necessary. "I just felt the need to do something in the memory of my son," he said. "I felt James deserved that."
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