Lawsuit rejected in case of priest who killed two

By Chuck Rupnow, Leader-Telegram staff

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Carsten and Sally Ellison of Barron against the Catholic Diocese of Superior for the murder of their son by a priest was dismissed Tuesday afternoon in a summary judgment by Eau Claire County Judge Paul Lenz.

Lenz, in an oral ruling, said it was “too remote” to think the diocese would have any reason to believe the Rev. Ryan Erickson would kill someone based on the information it had before the double murder occurred.

Even if the diocese did have information about Erickson’s suspected temper, child pornography and violent tendencies, Lenz said, “it would appear such negligence would not have brought about such harm.”

The Ellisons of Barron said they filed the suit to hold the diocese accountable and to spur changes regarding who it accepts as priests and how it handles priests who might be unfit to serve.

Any monetary awards from the lawsuit would have gone to the James Ellison Foundation for the Protection of Children, an organization to protect children from sexual abuse and provide aftercare to those assaulted.

James Ellison, 22, and Dan O’Connell, 39, were shot to death Feb. 5, 2002, inside the O’Connell Family Funeral Home in Hudson.

O’Connell was a co-owner in the family business, while Ellison was a mortuary science student who was interning there and was expected to join the business full time after graduating from the University of Minnesota.

The murder remained unsolved for years. Erickson was removed from St. Patrick Church in Hudson, moving to Ladysmith and then Hurley, where he hanged himself outside that parish in December 2004, according to court and police records. He was 31.

St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell ruled in October 2005 Erickson murdered both men because he was afraid O’Connell would report Erickson’s obsession with young boys, alcohol and firearms to church officials.

The Ellisons’ lawsuit was filed in St. Croix County Court. Lenz was assigned the case. The suit requests unspecified damages for loss of society and companionship, funeral costs and medical expenses.

“We are obviously disappointed,” said attorney Richard Jasperson of St. Paul, who represented the Ellisons in the lawsuit, adding it was premature to discuss appealing the case. “We will do whatever is in the best interest of the Ellisons.”

Attorney Kyle Torvinen of Superior, who represented the diocese, said Tuesday that Lenz’s decision was appropriate and “justice was done, and we’re glad of that. It has been a long road.”

The Ellisons did not participate in a lawsuit filed by O’Connell’s relatives against all 194 U.S. Catholic bishops. That suit demanded names of predatory priests be made public.

Washburn County Judge Eugene Harrington threw that case out earlier this year, saying the Superior diocese can’t be forced to release information about how the church deals with sex abuse by its priests.

Harrington 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.”

Rupnow can be reached at 830-5831, 800-236-7077 or chuck.