Judge dismisses lawsuit against Catholic diocese in Wisconsin

The Associated Press

HUDSON, Wis.-A judge threw out a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Superior, saying the diocese can’t be forced to release information about how the church deals with sex abuse by priests.

The lawsuit was filed in 2006 by the family of Daniel O’Connell, 39, a funeral director who, along with one other man, was fatally shot four years earlier.

A St. Croix County judge in 2005 found probable cause that the Rev. Ryan Erickson shot O’Connell and James Ellison, 22, at the O’Connell family’s funeral home in northwestern Wisconsin.

Erickson, 31, who had been a priest at St. Patrick’s Church in Hurley, hanged himself in December 2004, just days after police questioned him in the slayings.

St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson has said evidence suggested O’Connell learned the priest was sexually abusing someone, was providing alcohol to minors, or both.

In the lawsuit, O’Connell’s parents and three siblings asked that all documents from the bishops and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding molestation be released to law enforcement.

“The bishops and the USCCB have established a policy of harboring and protecting suspected child molesting agents, thereby endangering numerous children throughout the United States,” their complaint said.

Judge Eugene Harrington, in his court filing Friday, called the O’Connells’ lawsuit an “ambitious request” and dismissed the case.

The injunction the family sought “has no foundation under Wisconsin law,” Harrington wrote, and to force the church to change its policies “infringes upon the First Amendment.”

Neither the Catholic Diocese of Superior nor O’Connell’s brother, Thomas O’Connell, returned messages from The Associated Press on Monday evening.

But Thomas O’Connell told KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minn., that he was disappointed with the ruling.

“Where does church and state, the First Amendment, protect a molester?” he asked.

The O’Connell family had claimed the church failed to act when abuse allegations against Erickson first surfaced.

The judge said “there are no facts to support that allegation” and that the family failed to prove “that pedophile priests have a greater propensity to commit homicide than any other person in society.”

Thomas O’Connell said family members would take some time to decide on their next steps.