In January, 2002, Dan O’Connell was part owner of the O’Connell Family Funeral Home in Hudson, WI with his father, Thomas P. and brother Mike. James Ellison was an intern working for the business, soon to graduate, and soon to be hired by the O’Connells. Hudson is located just 15 miles east of the Twin Cities. Dan was married to Jennie with two children, ages 7 and 9. Dan was a member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Hudson, a civic and business leader, and a member of numerous organizations. For generations, the O’Connell family has not only practiced the Catholic faith but supported Catholic grade schools and high schools. Dan’s sister-in-law, Carol O’Connell, taught at a Catholic school for 12 years. The Ellisons are devout Lutherans.
Dan was a good father and spent hours on his kids' activities. He was a volunteer EMT, coached, and worked on numerous fund raisers within the city. With his brother Mike, the two raised over $ 25,000 for the families of emergency workers killed on 9/11. James, who was to graduate in May, 2002, from the University of Minnesota, was an excellent son who was just really beginning to show what he could offer as an adult, professionally and to society.
On February 05, 2002, both Dan and James were brutally murdered in the O’Connell Family Funeral Home. The Hudson Police Department, FBI, and Wisconsin State Dept. of Justice worked on the case to find the killer. Numerous scenarios, including a robbery gone badly and a cult that issued warnings to Wisconsin funeral homes for embalming practices, were investigated. Family members, friends, and co-workers were all questioned for possible motives. It was not until two and one half years later the killer was found; a Roman Catholic priest who was an associate pastor in Hudson at St. Patrick’s where Dan was a member. This same priest con-celebrated Dan’s funeral and went to Dan’s home to comfort the family within two hours after the murders.
The investigation into Fr. Ryan Erickson was initially conducted due to complaints and accusations brought to the Hudson Police Department that Erickson was serving liquor to minors and molesting minors. This occurred while the juvenile was staying with the priest every other weekend for two years at the church rectory where other priests resided as well. It was through the interrogations into the abuse that the priest made mention of the two murders and unconsciously offered information on the murders that were never before released. A second interrogation was held that revealed additional information regarding the priest. Shortly thereafter, the priest admitted to a deacon at the church in which he had been transferred, that “I did it and they’re going to catch me”. Within three weeks of the second interrogation, Erickson committed suicide on a Sunday morning by hanging himself between the rectory and the church.
More investigation followed with the authorities spending more than 8,000 hours on the case and interviewing close to 2,000 people. It was found that Dan O’Connell somehow found out about the molestations and confronted Erickson. It was reported by a friend of Erickson that Dan and Erickson had a heated argument the night before the murders. The morning of the murders, Dan met with a bus driver who drove for St. Patrick’s school, asking if she knew of any inappropriate behavior Erickson may have had with children. He also mentioned a meeting that was to take place after lunch with Erickson. Then at 1:00 PM on February 5th, Dan and James were murdered.
The interviews with Erickson, along with research into his past, gave police insight into the history of Erickson and his problems, including molestation starting at an early age, a vicious temper, abuse to animals, alcohol problems, and his love of guns. At the time of his suicide, Erickson owned 18 different guns; often times wearing one under his priestly garments or carrying concealed weapons in his car. Testing was done on the guns but none were determined to be the same that caused the murders.
In Wisconsin, when a person being tried for crime commits suicide, a John Doe Hearing is conducted where a judge is presented all the evidence and makes a decision as to whether a crime was committed and decides if there is probable cause that the person accused committed the crime. On October 3, 2005, the John Doe Hearing was held and the presiding judge stated that on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most certain, not only was a crime committed but he ranked a 10 that Erickson was guilty.
Murder is a form of death that is extremely difficult for family and friends, and these two murders were no exception. What though made this even more difficult was the fact that the murders were committed by a priest, someone who represents God and the Church, and by someone in a position that the O’Connell family has trusted and revered for generations. It was at the closing of the John Doe Hearing that the O’Connells, along with the Ellison family, made a decision to have something good come from these murders.
The Problems of Molestation within the Catholic Church
Through the police investigation it was found that the Diocese of Superior, where St. Patrick’s is located, and the Bishop of Superior, knew of Erickson’s history dating back to pre-seminary days. Bishop Fliss of Superior himself, apologized publicly after over one year had passed, stating that he should have acted on the many “red flags” that were present with Erickson. Further investigation provided insight into other priests in the Diocese that also were not dealt with properly or moved to other parishes. The victims or families of those abused have never received the pastoral care that should come from the Church. In fact, it took over 18 months since Erickson was first being investigated for the bishop to contact the O’Connell or Ellison families, or meet with a very troubled St. Patrick’s parish. These contacts were made only after the media continued to criticize the Church and bishop for lack of compassion
More study was done on not just the Diocese of Superior but the Catholic Church across the country. The O’Connells have always been supportive of the Church and believed the molestation problem was an over-exaggeration used to sell newspapers or gain television viewers. Sadly, the O’Connells found that the Church has a major problem with abuse, which while some action was taken in 2002, little has changed as it relates to pastoral care, protecting children, and providing accountability. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed that has cost the Church over $ 500 million to date. The O’Connells and Ellisons made a decision that even though the murders were labeled as the worst case resulting from molestation in modern Church times, that a lawsuit would not be as productive as increasing awareness and working for reform.
The Catholic Church was reeling from molestation of four decades with the Boston Diocese bringing some of this to a head. In 2002, a study was conducted by John Jay College into priest molestation that was ordered by the National Conference of Bishops that governs the Catholic Church in the US. The study provided alarming statistics. According to the study, close to 5,000 priests were accused of serious molestation in the last four decades preceding the study. This figure accounts for between 4-5 % of the acting priests during this time period. The accusations were by the church itself and did not take into consideration those accusations made, but not followed up on, by other victims and families. The number of victims can only be a guess, but as most pedophiles repeatedly commit crimes over and over in new cities and locations, it is assumed the number of victims is in the hundreds of thousands, if not more. By transferring priests to other locations, the problem has only moved to a new set of targets. This is something the hierarchy of the Church is fully aware of, but rather than correct the problem, they stand behind lawyers and legal loopholes given only to the clergy.
At the same time of the study, the National Review Board, which is a lay organization that has been used as an advisory group to the National Conference of Bishops, offered a report and recommendations from the study that was conducted by John Jay College. The report by the Review Board was extremely critical of the Catholic Church and how it handled molestation, including a lack of accountability for bishops and cardinals that do not act aggressively with molesters, a severe lack of pastoral care to victims, no programs at the diocesan level regarding molestation programs, and found the Church was busy “hiding behind lawyers” as opposed to taking proactive steps in solving the problem, and numerous other areas.
From the Review Board recommendations, the National Conference of Bishops developed a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. At the time, it was believed that progress was being made, but it soon turned out the recommendations of the Review Board and the Charter itself were not being followed. Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a member of the Review Board, compared the Natl. Conference of Bishops to that of the La Cosa Nostra, the American version of the mafia, because of the secrecy and lack of public policy regarding molestation. Keating resigned from the board after several members and Church officials criticized his comparison. Many though soon found Keating to be correct and within the next year, the majority of other National. Review Board members resigned stating the Church was simply using the Review Board for PR purposes, reverting back to old ways, and still not taking the molestation problem seriously
While Church officials have stated that action has been taken to prevent molestation, serious problems still exist including a lack of accountability of decisions made regarding priests that molest. While a priest may receive a punishment from the Church itself, the bishops that allowed the molestation to continue have no consequences. There are reportedly hundreds of thousands of victims that have not had any pastoral care or support from the Church. Rather than meet with the victims and their families, bishops or clergy may offer a blanket apology and stop there. Names of priests that have been identified and accused by the Church itself are kept secret with the general public not knowing who is a molester and who is not. This is much different from all other US citizens where registries are created, websites identify molesters, and pedophiles and other abusers are tracked and made public. Priests are thus put above the law and are not treated the same as other individuals. This has led to abuse continuing and not being addressed.
It should also be mentioned that while all molestation is a terrible tragedy that can cause a lifetime of harm, the molestation by a priest can be even more damaging. While it is difficult for victims of any molestation to come forward, those molested by priests find it even harder, as the priest may state he is acting on behalf of God, that the victim will feel closer to God, this must be a secret to protect the Church, or that nobody would believe a victim over a priest. Furthermore, some parents or other individuals will not believe that any molestation has occurred at the hands of the local clergy. These cases of molestation not only harm a person physically and mentally but spiritually as well. It is for these reasons that it may take years, if not decades for a victim to seek help. Yet at that time, the Statute of Limitation laws prohibit a priest from being accused. In some states, the Church is protected from legal or civil suits that can bring the truth forward. Too often the victims find a life of suffering or have committed suicide to hide the guilt they feel.
The O’Connell and Ellison Plan of Action
As mentioned, the O’Connells and Ellisons are looking to make something good come from the tragedies that hit both of their families. Dan O’Connell started something to address molestation in the Church and the families are devoted in continuing what Dan started.
The steps that the families have taken will serve several objectives including:
- Protecting children from future molestation and abuse, especially by the clergy
- Help provide the support and assistance that is needed for victims of clergy molestation
- Assist in gaining back the trust and reverence due the vast majority of “good priests” that have answered a calling to serve God.
- Build programs that will allow for a better church, one in which generations can practice their faith without mistrust, lies, and criminal activity by representatives.
- Increase awareness with parents and children alike to be cautious of those in leadership or religious roles that take advantage of their positions. Parents or guardians must listen to their children and not allow for situations that may cause harm.
In attempting to reach our objectives, the families have developed a five point plan for reform that has been presented to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as the committees that oversee molestation programs. The families have written to and expressed a desire to meet with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the problems of the Catholic Church and molestation in the US. Communication has been made to the Vatican Embassy, the Ambassador to the Vatican, and President Bush to help open the door for this meeting. There have also been efforts at increasing awareness of the entire Catholic community and other US citizens of the problems that exist and a call for reform. While it has been stated before, it is worth repeating. The families are not trying to harm or attack the Catholic Church or any other denomination but rather protect children, help past victims, and build a stronger Church for future generations.
The Five Point Plan that has been introduced includes the following points:
A measurable and quantifiable program that will address accountability of bishops and other Church hierarchy in actions or inactions taken with priests that are involved in molestation and other cases of abuse. This includes current priests as well as seminarians.
A new program that reaches out to past victims and their families; a measurable program that has specific steps on how the hierarchy themselves will create a plan that publicly addresses the wrongs committed and privately works with families in the healing process.
Admitting to the problems and the lack of action taken on behalf of the Church.
Releasing names of all priests that have been identified by the Church as molesters per the John Jay College study conducted in 2002.
Reform regarding molestation, clergy and otherwise, at the various state levels and support of that reform from the Catholic hierarchy, including review and extending the Statute of Limitations for all molesters who have committed such heinous crimes.
The initial efforts of the families to present the above plan has been met with little support or cooperation from the Church. While both families attended the Natl. Conference for Catholic Bishop Annual Conference in Washington DC, the group of close to 200 bishops refused any type of audience with the families to accept and consider the Five Point Plan. A trip to Chicago, again by both families, to attempt to deliver and meet with Cardinal George who is the incoming President of the Natl. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was met with rude staff members and a refusal of any clergy to accept the plan. And, as of yet, there has been no word on the meeting at the Vatican.
It is ironic that the trip to Chicago to present the Five Point Plan was only a few days prior to problems in Chicago surfacing about clergy molestation and inactivity of the hierarchy of the Chicago Diocese. The Honorable Anne Burke, Judge-Illinois Court of Appeals and who was chairperson of the National Review Board in 2003, stated these most recent cases represents “a cover-up worse than Boston and worse than anything Boston would ever do”. In addition to the pain of the victims, an alarming point to this latest development is that Cardinal George who oversees the Diocese of Chicago and had direct knowledge and possible approval of these cover-ups, is to be the President of the Natl. Catholic Conference of Bishops in 2006.
Our objective is to create real reform and make molestation something of the past. As mentioned, the families have stated that this is not about money and have chosen to pursue a different route in seeking change within the church as it relates to protecting children. The response or lack thereof raises the question; “Is money is the only action that the Catholic Church understands and reacts to?”
It should be mentioned that there have been some positive results from the actions above but we need more. The support of people from across the country stating that molestation and protection of children needs to be addressed has been very good. Too often we are hearing stories that someone knows a family member or friend that has been molested or that people have quit the Church as they are “sick and tired” of hidden practices of the Church. Numerous victims have come forward and thanked us for speaking on their behalf.
As stated previously, we are working on something Dan O’Connell started and was killed for. Increasing awareness with the general public of the still present problems within the church may result in more parents and adults preventing situations where they put their children in possible harm’s way, an increased demand for reform to seek out and help past victims of clergy abuse, and programs or steps to prevent future child molestation. Our hope is that we can help battle the problems of molestation.