Relatives of slain men seek to talk with bishops

Families say Catholic church hasn't taken clergy reform far enough

November 15, 2005|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The families of two men who apparently were shot to death by a priest demanded yesterday to meet with Roman Catholic bishops about reforming a system that they say still is not protecting parishioners from troubled clergy.

The parents, brothers and sisters of the slain men, Daniel O'Connell and James Ellison, say church officials should have taken note of the Rev. Ryan Erickson's handgun collection, his penchant for drinking alcohol with youths on overnight visits, and the history of allegations against him that involved sexual abuse and affairs with parishioners.

"Red flags were raised. They were ignored," said Sally Ellison, clutching a photograph of her 22-year-old son. "And because of that, Dan is dead, and James is dead."

The nine family members came to Washington, where the bishops began their fall general meeting yesterday, to tell the church leaders of a five-point plan for addressing abuse. They spoke to reporters outside the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

"We're not here to tear down the church," said Thomas O'Connell Jr., Daniel's older brother. "We're here to improve it."

A judge in Wisconsin ruled last month that it was likely that Erickson killed the two men in 2002 after O'Connell, 39, confronted him over rumors he had been molesting children.

The 31-year-old priest, who was questioned by police in the killings, hanged himself last year.

Erickson, of St. Patrick's Church in Hudson, Wis., left notes protesting his innocence. But to their parents and siblings, O'Connell and Ellison are two more victims in the abuse crisis burdening the church in the United States.

American dioceses have paid out more than $1 billion in settlements and other costs relating to 11,500 claims of abuse by priests over the past five decades, the Associated Press has reported.

After the crisis erupted in 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved reforms that included permanently barring sex offenders from church work.

The killings of O'Connell and Ellison predate those changes. Still, family members say, they have not gone far enough to protect children and others.

The "O'Connell-Ellison Call to Action" proposed by the families calls for disciplining church officials who ordain troubled seminarians, full disclosure of clergy sex crimes, public acknowledgement of mistakes made, pastoral outreach to victims and help reforming laws that endanger children and protect abusers.

"We have a family of four children. I'm loyal to my husband and vice-versa and to the children, but if they did something wrong they would be reprimanded right on the spot and taken to task for their actions," said Janet O'Connell, Daniel's mother. "And the priests have to do the same."

Family members also are seeking a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.

"This is a serious, serious problem ... that has got to be recognized in this country as well as the Vatican," Thomas O'Connell said.

Teresa Kettelkamp, the executive director of the conference's Office of Child and Youth Protection, said she would make sure the bishops saw the plan.

Kettelkamp said the bishops had not anticipated their visit but had been planning to discuss child protection during a closed-door session tomorrow. Then she invited family members into the hotel to talk privately.

The general meeting of the Conference of Catholic Bishops continues through Thursday. Bishops were expected to debate and vote today on a call to end the use of the death penalty in the United States.

"It is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life," reads a draft of the statement. "The sanction of death undermines respect for human life and dignity."

The document, titled "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death," comes as polls indicate growing opposition to capital punishment in the United States generally.

Also today, bishops were expected to debate and vote on a document to guide the roles of lay ecclesial ministers - nonordained men and women who play an increasingly important role in a church challenged by declining numbers of priests.

Working as chancellors, parish associates, youth ministers, religious educators, chaplains or in other roles, lay ecclesial ministers now can be found on the staffs of 66 percent of parishes in the United States - up from 54 percent in 1990.

"Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry" addresses the theological understandings of their role in the church and their appropriate education and formation.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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