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Bishops asked 'to do the right thing'

Dan O'Connell's parents and siblings think they have found a way to make something good come from the tragic murder of their son and brother. They filed a lawsuit last week against all 194 U.S. Catholic bishops for the names of the estimated 5,000 priests the American church has identified as sexual abusers and predators since the 1950s.

"We just want them to do the right thing. We don't want to see any more children hurt by these evil men," said Janet O'Connell, Dan's mother.

At a press conference in the office of the family's attorney, Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Dan's brother Tom O'Connell Jr. said that Dan was doing the job of the church when he confronted the late Father Ryan Erickson about his alleged sexual abuse of boys while he was a priest at St. Patrick's in Hudson.

"It got Dan killed and Jim Ellison, an innocent bystander. Both were murdered as the result of clergy abuse and molestation. The (Superior) Diocese knew about Erickson's history of molestation when he was in high school, long before he was ordained, but they went ahead and made him a priest."

Tom O'Connell Jr. said the family has made numerous attempts to work with the bishops to openly address the problem of clergy abuse, but the church has failed to respond.

"We want the list revealed. As it stands, we don't know where these men are, if they are still priests, where they have worked or been transferred to. They might not be priests anymore but maybe teachers or Boy Scout leaders. These men are predators. They will do it again. Identifying them and making it public is the right thing to do."

Janet O'Connell fought back tears not only when she spoke of her murdered son but also of Erickson's victims, especially the two men she heard testify at the hearing into her son's death.

"I believe the only way to make any sense out of what happened to Dan and James (Ellison) is to continue the job Dan started -- that is, to do whatever is necessary to protect our children. My heart broke when those boys testified to what they had suffered at the hands of this evil man. We will do whatever is necessary to keep these wicked men away from our kids."

Clergy support

Along with other O'Connell family members, two Catholic clergy spoke in support of the O'Connells' lawsuit. St. Patrick's Deacon Bernie Drevnick said he was at the press conference not as a representative of his Hudson parish but because he believed the family "was doing the correct thing."

Drevnick added, "The bishops should dare to be like Christ. They should model themselves after Christ the teacher, Christ the healer, Christ the shepherd and the miracle-worker. It is my hope that this suit will cause them (bishops) to search their souls, pray to the Holy Spirit and help these families. They have my support and the support of many at St. Patrick's."

Father Tom Doyle first met the O'Connells when they went to Washington, D.C., last November to meet with bishops. Doyle, a Franciscan priest, first became aware of the clergy abuse problem in the 1980s and warned bishops then that the problem was ongoing and needed to be addressed openly by the Catholic Church.

Doyle told reporters in the 23 years since then, the only thing that has helped is the attention of the secular media. "I believe the combination of this lawsuit and attention from the media has the potential to be more powerful than the bishops and the church."

Doyle said the efforts made by the church to date to address the issue have been mostly public relations tools and not sincere in their efforts to give "real pastoral care to victims and their families."

Tom O'Connell Sr. stressed that the lawsuit does not seek any financial damages.

"This isn't about money. Money is great in some cases but not here. In this case it would seem like payoff, like money for sex. That isn't what this is about. We tried to work with the bishops and got no answer. We are not against the church or the faith, but the hierarchy that has let this kind of thing go on. It has to stop."

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the O'Connell family would like to have put in place a permanent database of pedophile priests that could be accessed as a "one-stop shop" for things such as background checks.

If a family encounters a situation such as an ex-priest who moves in next door and volunteers to baby-sit, or a school is offered tutoring services, this could be a valuable resource, he said.

"If it succeeds, the lawsuit will be a tremendous precedent for forcing churches to release information about abusive priests," Clohessy said.

For more information about the O'Connell lawsuit against American bishops, and clergy abuse in the United States, go to

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.

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