Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bishop Fliss of Superior says Lawsuit Harms Church's Sex-Abuse Efforts

A lawsuit brought against the U.S. Catholic bishops by relatives of a man believed to have been killed by a priest "will only hurt the positive progress we have made" to end clergy sex abuse of minors, said Bishop Raphael M. Fliss of Superior.

The suit was filed in a Wisconsin court Aug. 8 against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and against its member bishops as individuals. It does not ask for monetary damages.

It asks for a court injunction to have the bishops release the names and addresses of priests and church personnel who at the least have had accusations of child sex abuse against them deemed credible. It also asks the bishops to release documents that it says could be evidence of a failure by the bishops to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement authorities and documents that could be evidence that child sex abuse took place.

"While I am certain their motives are sincere, I believe these actions will only prolong their pain and anger and will hinder our efforts to move forward in providing safe environments for our children and youth," said Bishop Fliss in an Aug. 14 statement.

The bishops' national policy contained in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" adopted in 2002 and revised in 2005 leaves the decision to publish names of church personnel who have at the least credible abuse accusations against them to each diocese, as privacy laws vary from state to state. Some dioceses release the names while others do not.

The suit was filed in St. Croix County Circuit Court by relatives of Dan O'Connell, 39, who was found murdered in February 2002 along with James Ellison, 22, in the funeral home in Hudson owned by the O'Connell family. The prime suspect in the murders was Father Ryan Erickson, who committed suicide in 2004, at age 31. He killed himself after being questioned about the murders.

Judge Eric Lundell ruled at a 2005 evidentiary hearing that there was probable cause to believe Father Erickson was responsible for the murders. The hearing also produced allegations by some parishioners at St. Patrick Parish in Hudson that the priest had molested at least one teenage boy and had engaged in other inappropriate actions such as serving alcohol to minors.

Lundell ruled that the murders occurred after O'Connell confronted the priest about allegations that Father Erickson had sexually abused minors.

The suit alleges that the case of Father Erickson is an example of bishops refusing to report suspected child sex abuse to law enforcement officials.

"The USCCB and each of the bishops came to a meeting of the minds whereby they agreed to and did create a policy of secrecy and suppression of information in a conspiracy to cover up child sex abuse and to ultimately avoid scandal in order to retain their power and influence in the nation," said the suit.

The plaintiffs said the decision to file the suit came after the bishops took no action on a proposal by relatives of the two murdered men made while the bishops were meeting in Washington last November.

The proposal called for measures to prevent abuse and criminal behavior by clergy, as well as discipline for bishops and church personnel who protected or covered up for predatory priests. The families gave the bishops until July 15 to respond.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Jeff Anderson, said in a press release that the O'Connell relatives want the bishops to set up "a national registry of abusive clerics and fully disclose the identities of all offending priests and other church personnel."

They want the bishops "to help reform archaic state child sex abuse laws and devise a method to discipline bishops who ordain troubled seminarians and protect offending priests," said Anderson.

The relatives are also seeking a face-to-face meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, he said.

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the U.S. bishops' spokeswoman, said Aug. 14 that the U.S. bishops "deeply sympathize" with the relatives "for the tragedy that has befallen them."

Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, Texas, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, and Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, met with members of the two families in Washington in November and in Wisconsin and have been in correspondence with them, Sister Walsh said.

"The bishops have a comprehensive plan to protect children and young people and it is being implemented across the country," she said.
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Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, posted Here

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