Diocese, bishop face wrongful death suit

Roman Catholic Church officials in Superior today may have become the first nationwide to be served with a wrongful death lawsuit related to sexual abuse by a priest.

Roman Catholic Church officials in Superior today may have become the first nationwide to be served with a wrongful death lawsuit related to sexual abuse by a priest.

But neither Bishop Raphael Fliss nor diocese spokesman the Rev. Philip Heslin were available to accept the document, filed by parents of James Ellison, who they believe he was fatally shot on Feb. 5, 2002, by the Rev. Ryan Erickson at a Hudson mortuary. Carsten and Sally Ellison of Barron seek unspecified damages for the loss of their 22-year-old son, claiming church leaders knew about the priest's unusual behavior but did nothing to stop it.

The lawsuit complaint was presented by Bob Schwiderski, Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. With Fliss hospitalized in Duluth for hip surgery and Heslin recovering from hip surgery, the civil complaint was presented to their secretary Pat Wildenberg, who declined comment.

In a news conference, Schwiderski said he was hoping that Fliss, in a gesture of holiday spirit, would take stronger steps to address sexual abuse by priests. In particular, the bishop should identify all sexual offenders who have served the diocese, then work with other religious leaders, law enforcement officers, educators and government officials in a coordinated effort to prevent sexual abuse of children, said Schwiderski, himself a victim of clergy abuse.

The suit surmises that Ellison, an intern at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home, was shot because he "either witnessed Dan O'Connell being shot, heard the gunshots or witnessed the immediate aftermath of the shooting." It also claims that the Superior Diocese knew about an alleged sexual assault committed by Erickson and never disclosed the information.


In October 2005, St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell ruled there was probable cause to believe Erickson killed O'Connell and Ellison and the murders were premeditated. Erickson hanged himself outside his Hurley residence in December 2004, days after being questioned by police and FBI agents.

The Ellisons are asking for an unspecified amount of damages for medical expenses, funeral costs and loss of society and companionship. But if there's a settlement, the money won't go to the family nor their lawyer, Jeff Anderson of St. Paul. All of it will be given to the James Ellison Foundation for the Protection of Children, a non-profit corporation that will assist survivors of sexual abuse, Schwiderski said in an interview.

"This family has grieved deeply and has struggled over this decision for a long time. They reluctantly brought this case -- certainly didn't want to anymore than they wanted to lose their son," Anderson told The Telegram.

Addressing wrongful death, the the lawsuit argues Superior Diocese officials had enough evidence to know Erickson "was unfit for the priesthood and that, once a priest, he molested children, abused alcohol, was violent and abusive and had a propensity to use firearms."

"If Bishop Fliss had been more concerned about the souls of the young people instead of trying to create or protect the brotherhood, the Ellisons would not be in the deep sorrow that they are," Schwiderski said Tuesday night. "It's complete mismanagement ... and just another example of the failures of that bishop."

"We felt that this was the only thing to do to make somebody accountable for James' and Dan's deaths," Sally Ellison said. "It didn't have to happen. If people had been doing their job, and had things in place within the church to screen out people like this from getting into those positions ... Dan and James would not be dead."

She said the couple is trying to raise awareness of the abuse problem within the Catholic church, and wouldn't want any settlement money for the family, saying it would feel like "blood money ... paying you off for what they did to your son," she said. "But nobody's taking responsibility ... this is something we can do as his parents."

Carsten Ellison said his family is uncomfortable filing a lawsuit, but felt it was necessary.


"I just felt the need to do something in the memory of my son," he said. "I felt James deserved that."

Their decision began with going public and imploring this bishop to step and clean up, Anderson said, and when Fliss didn't, and continued to turn his back, they realized that they weren't listening.

"There were countless warning signs that said this guy was a sexual predator. He was a psychopath who carried firearms, who is fixated on them, who has tortured animals, who intoxicated children, who utilized pornography, firearms and violence as a mode and method of control for years," Anderson said. "By his failure to intervene and report what he knew about crimes, and erratic and bizarre behavior to police, he allowed Erickson to take a firearm and go kill Dan O'Connell before (O'Connell) could report him to police, which he intended to do. And then he turned the gun on James, who was working as an intern. As a result, these families have suffered grievous loss. What this family has decided to do is not make sense out of it, but hold those accountable to task. Ryan Erickson did the homicide. But Bishop Fliss permitted it to occur. And that's what makes his death wrongful and that's what makes this action imperative, morally and legally."

Although diocese officials have not responded directly to the Tuesday lawsuit, they blasted The Telegram from the pulpit Sunday, contending coverage of sexual abuse incidents by priests has been unfair.

This story includes material from Forum Communications and The Associated Press.

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