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O'Connells sue for priests' names

The family of murder victim Dan O'Connell filed a lawsuit Tuesday against all 194 U.S. Catholic bishops demanding that the names of predatory priests in America be made public.

The action was prompted after St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell ruled last October that there was probable cause to believe that O'Connell and James Ellison were murdered by the late Father Ryan Erickson after O'Connell confronted the priest with allegations of sexual abuse and other criminal behavior with minors. Erickson committed suicide in December 2004 after being questioned by police about the murders. See separate story for more details on investigation.

The families, along with their attorney, Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, held news conferences in St. Paul and Milwaukee on Tuesday. The lawsuit was filed in St. Croix County and will be heard by Judge Edward Vlack. According to Anderson, the unprecedented action does not seek any money from the church but rather a court-ordered injunction by Vlack to have the bishops release all the names of priests who have admitted, been proven or credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Family members Tom and Janet O'Connell (Hudson), Tom Jr. and Carol (Madison) and Kathi O'Connell (Hudson) attended the news conference in Milwaukee Tuesday morning. They were joined by Mike and Carla O'Connell (Baldwin) at the St. Paul news conference Tuesday afternoon. Also present was Father Tom Doyle, a Washington, D.C. priest who has a reputation as a whistle blower for predator priests.

Anderson stated that in 2002 the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops said they had identified approximately 5,000 clergy who have abused or molested children and adults since the 1950s. The lawsuit seeks to make the names of these men, as well as their location, public.

Anderson said the victims of these priests along with the people and parishes they have served, or are continuing to serve, have a right to the information.

"We are finishing the job that Dan started on behalf of victims of priests like Ryan Erickson," said Tom Jr. "Dan's efforts got him killed."

He said the family tried to work through church channels to get predator priests identified.

"We tried to work through the bishops, but didn't get any cooperation," Tom Jr. said. "Identifying the predators is the right thing to do -- they know who they are and these predators will do it again. The bishops need to be accountable."

Tom Jr. was also critical of Superior Diocese Bishop Raphael Fliss for not contacting the family for nearly a year after it became apparent that Erickson was the apparent killer.

Dan's father, Tom Sr., said the family had no alternative but to go forward with the suit.

"But we didn't want it to be about money," Tom Sr. said.

Dan's mother, Janet O'Connell, was emotional at the press conference and also said the family was continuing the job that Dan started.

"We owe it to the children who have been molested by priests," Janet said.

The decision to go forward with the lawsuit came after the bishops took no action on a five-point proposal presented by the O'Connells and Ellisons to the bishops at their nationwide conference last November.

The plan called for reforms to prevent further abuse and criminal behavior by clergy as well as discipline for those bishops and other church personnel who protected or covered up for predator priests.

The families gave the bishops until July 15 to respond. When no response was made, Anderson said the family had "no choice but to proceed with the lawsuit."

In a press release, Anderson stated, "To protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded, the families want Catholic officials to set up a national registry of abusive clerics and fully disclose the identities of all offending priests and other church personnel. They also want bishops to help reform archaic state child sex abuse laws and devise a method to discipline bishops who ordain troubled seminarians and protect offending priests." They also seek a face-to-face meeting with Pope Benedict.

The murder investigation by the Hudson Police Department revealed that officials of the Archdiocese of Superior knew Erickson had been accused at least twice of molesting boys, once six years before he was ordained in 2000.

The family referred people to a web site with information about priest abuse and efforts that can be made to address the problem. Access to the site is at: www.crusadeagainstclergyabuse.com.

Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
(715) 808-8604
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