Lawsuit against bishops halted, Hudson family vows to fight on

(Star Tribune) A Wisconsin judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to force the Roman Catholic Church to disclose the names of priests suspected of sexual abuse.

Washburn County Circuit Judge Eugene Harrington dismissed the case Friday, saying the court did not have jurisdiction to issue such an order in the suit, filed against U.S. bishops by members of the family of Daniel O’Connell. He is believed to have been shot to death in 2002 by the Rev. Ryan Erickson, a Catholic priest.

O’Connell, 39, and another man, James Ellison, 22, were shot to death at the Hudson, Wis., funeral home owned by O’Connell’s family. O’Connell was believed to be planning to confront Erickson over whether the priest had sexually abused children in the local parish. In 2005, a judge had found probable cause that Erickson killed the men.

Courts should not consider “disputes involving a church’s supervision of its clergy. Consideration of such disputes violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Harrington wrote in his ruling last week.

The O’Connells learned about the ruling Friday. They filed the lawsuit in August 2006 against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and all 179 U.S. bishops. The lawsuit sought to release the names in a 2002 internal church audit documenting alleged sexual abuse. They are not seeking any money.

The conference could not be reached for comment.

“Quite simply, this is such a painful thing,” said Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The church takes steps to stop sexual abuse, he added.

‘Ambitious litigation’

Harrington described the suit as “ambitious litigation” that, if successful, would “dramatically affect the internal practices of the Catholic Church” and its relationship to the nation’s 69 million followers.

O’Connell’s older brother, Tom O’Connell, said the family won’t give up the effort.

“We’re extremely disappointed in the judge’s ruling,” he said Monday. “I can guarantee you that we will continue to fight to protect children.”

The family can appeal Harrington’s decision or take another route, said its attorney, Jeff Anderson. Tom O’Connell said family members have not decided what they’ll do next.

“They’re good Catholics, and all they want is their church bishops to come clean,” Anderson said. “They not only lost their son, but it’s shaken their faith. Faith in the institution.”

Erickson hanged himself in December 2004 after he had been questioned in the investigation. Church officials were aware that Erickson had been investigated by authorities for allegations of sexual abuse in the 1990s.

By CHAO XIONG, Star Tribune