Former priest admitting to abuse still not charged

By Frank Zufall
Sawyer County Record
December 30, 2014

A former Catholic priest alleged to have committed molestation against children in the village of Winter in 1983, and who admits in a Dec. 1 report that he abused, has never been charged even though Wisconsin’s statute of limitations allows for charges to be filed.

Thomas Ericksen, 67, now living in the Twin Cities, served as a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Superior at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the Village of Winter.

Two alleged victims, Paul Eck and his nephew, James, filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese and Ericksen for alleged assault and settled for $3 million in 1989, the year after Ericksen left the priesthood.

However, criminal charges have never been filed against Ericksen.

In 2010, investigating Ericksen on the Internet, Paul Eck discovered the former priest had been volunteering for three years in Kansas City with Special Olympics. Ericksen was subsequently suspended from Special Olympics.

In 2010, the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department also opened an investigation against Ericksen. In the same year, Ericksen moved to Indonesia and it appears law enforcement lost track of him until recently.

Then in 2014, Ericksen was back in the news when he was discovered volunteering at a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, food shelf in proximity to children who used the facility with parents. Another volunteer, Shirley Ruff, did a Google search and discovered the $3 million settlement and that he had been accused of sexually assaulting boys. On Oct. 3, Ericksen was fired from the food shelf, according to a Dec. 1 report by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).

In the MPR report, Ericksen admits to having committed abuse but said he did not understand it was wrong until he had received therapy. “I was thinking of it as I was being a father to these kids,” he said and added, “Of course, you know, the father doesn’t have sex with kids, but I didn’t have sex. I didn’t consider it sex.”

In the report, Ericksen said he did not “rape” the kids because he did not have vaginal or anal sex with them.

“The case is still open,” said Sawyer County Sheriff Mark Kelsey regarding Ericksen.

Tolling doctrine in effect

In a July 21, 2010, article by Brandon Stahl of the Duluth News Tribune, Paul Eck said he wanted Ericksen extradited back to Wisconsin to face charges. “This is not about money,” Eck said. “I want to see him in court answering to this, and I want to see him behind bars.”

Even thought the alleged assaults occurred in 1983, charges can still be issued due to Wisconsin’s legal doctrine called “tolling,” which pauses the clock on the statute of limitations for those who leave the state.

The tolling doctrine was upheld in a 2010 Wisconsin Supreme Court case involving a former Jesuit priest, Donald McGuire, who appealed his 2006 conviction for assaulting two boys in the late 1960s.

In 2013, under the tolling law, Washburn County District Attorney Tom Frost declined to prosecute a former Illinois priest James Steel and Donald Ryniecki, former principal of the St. Joseph Catholic School of Wheeling, Ill., for alleged sexual abuse against Robert Brancato, then a minor, during 1982 and 1983, at a residence owned by Ryniecki on Long Lake in the Town of Birchwood in Washburn County.

Frost declined to prosecute, he said, due to “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that criminal offenses occurred.”

As in Ericksen’s case, the diocese where the former priest lived in the Brancato case, the Archdiocese of Chicago, settled with Brancato in a civil suit for an undisclosed sum.

However, unlike the Ericksen case, the priest and former school administrator in the Brancato case have never admitted to having committed abuse against Brancato.



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