Bishop Apologizes for Handling of Priest

By Robert Imrie
Associated Press, carried in Record Searchlight [Hudson WI]
January 15, 2006

HUDSON, Wis. (AP) -- A Roman Catholic bishop apologized Sunday for the way the diocese handled complaints about a late priest who is believed to have later killed two funeral home workers.

Diocese of Superior Bishop Raphael Fliss promised changes, including better evaluation of priests and improved communication with parishes to resolve complaints.

"I know that ultimate responsibility for much of what has taken place rests upon my shoulders," he told about 700 people at St. Patrick's Catholic Church.

A Wisconsin judge ruled that the Rev. Ryan Erickson almost certainly shot to death funeral home director Dan O'Connell, 39, and employee James Ellison, 22, in 2002.

St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson said evidence suggests O'Connell learned the priest was sexually abusing someone, was providing alcohol to minors, or both. Erickson committed suicide in 2004, just days after police questioned him in the slayings.

After the judge's ruling last fall, Fliss apologized for failing to find out more about Erickson. He said evaluations in the early 1990s showed Erickson was a proper candidate for the priesthood, despite an allegation of sexual misconduct with a young boy years before.

The diocese did not learn of any new allegations of improper sexual behavior by Erickson until Dec. 17, 2004 - just two days before Erickson committed suicide, the bishop wrote.

In his the first discussion with St. Patrick's parishioners about the priest Sunday, Fliss acknowledged he had received complaints about Erickson, who had drawn criticism over his behavior and conservative religious views.

A parishioner asked Fliss why he didn't do something more about them.

"I think I got more letters praising him than condemning him," Fliss said, adding he should have appointed a group to talk about Erickson.

Daniel O'Connell's mother, Janet O'Connell, said the bishop was irresponsible in addressing problems with the priest before the murders.

"I guess you have to forgive him," she said after the meeting.

James Ellison's father, Carsten Ellison, said he feels Fliss is truly sorry.

"That doesn't resolve the accountability. All he can do is be sorry for it because it is done now," said Ellison, whose family is Lutheran and does not belong to the church.

During a question-and-answer session, a member of the O'Connell family asked the bishop whether church leaders who fail to heed warnings about troubled priests should face discipline.

"I personally would be willing to move in that direction," Fliss said.


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