|Hudson, Wis. / Names of Accused Clergy Stay Secret
Family of Mortician Killed by Priest Loses Suit to Get List Catholic Officials Compiled
By Elizabeth Mohr
January 1, 2008
A judge has halted an unprecedented attempt by the family of a slain Hudson, Wis., mortician to force the Catholic Church to release the names of clergy accused of child molestation.
The family of Dan O'Connell, one of two men shot to death by a priest at his family's Hudson funeral home in 2002, sued the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in August 2006, asking for the names and locations of some 5,000 clergy members "credibly accused" of sexually assaulting children. The family said the lawsuit, which sought no monetary reward, was an attempt to make the information public to protect children and families.
But on Friday, Judge Eugene Harrington dismissed the lawsuit, which he termed an "ambitious request," and said the court cannot legally make the church release such information.
The injunction the O'Connell family sought "has no foundation under Wisconsin law," Harrington wrote, and to force the church to change its policies "infringes upon the First Amendment."
Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney who filed the suit in St. Croix County Circuit Court, said Monday that the case has important implications even if it was dismissed. Anderson, who is well known for fighting the Catholic Church in sexual abuse cases, said he and the O'Connells are "committed to doing what we can" to see that the list is made public.
"This ruling by this judge is certainly a legal setback for this family and everyone that wants to protect our children," Anderson said, "because bishops are able to keep those names secret."
The O'Connell family is disappointed by the ruling, Dan O'Connell's brother, Tom, said Monday.
"Not only with the judge but with the hierarchy of the church," he said. "We had hoped they were going to do the right thing."
The list of names originated in an internal investigation by the Catholic Church, said attorney Mike Finnegan, who has been working with Anderson on the case.
"No one else knows about (the names of the accused) except for the church and church hierarchy," Finnegan said. "The O'Connells just wanted them to release those names to the public so that parents and kids would know about it."
Anderson said he isn't sure about his next move in the lawsuit. A request for reconsideration or an appeal might be made, but he won't have a chance to fully review the judge's decision and meet with the O'Connell family until after the holidays, he said.
Pioneer Press attempts to contact the bishops conference, Diocese of Superior, and an attorney representing the diocese and former Bishop Raphael Fliss were unsuccessful.
The O'Connells are longtime members of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Hudson, where the Rev. Ryan Erickson served as an associate pastor. In October 2005, St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell ruled there was probable cause that Erickson killed O'Connell, 39, and James Ellison, 22, and sexually molested at least one teenage boy regularly in the parish rectory.
Investigators believe Erickson fatally shot O'Connell on Feb. 5, 2002, after the Hudson funeral home director confronted him about the suspected abuse. Ellison, a University of Minnesota mortuary science intern from Barron, Wis., was killed when he went to investigate the gunfire.
Days after police questioned Erickson, the 31-year-old hanged himself Dec. 19, 2004, at a church in Hurley, Wis., where he had been transferred.
Erickson had a history of excessive drinking, mental instability and alleged sexual abuse.
Anderson also represents Ellison's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Superior diocese.
Carsten and Sally Ellison sued in December 2006 seeking unspecified damages. They hope to use any money from a verdict or settlement to establish the James Ellison Foundation for the Protection of Children.
The case is still pending, Anderson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Mohr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5162.
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