Sally Ellison does not have an appointment with the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. She is not even a Catholic. But she is flying 900 miles from her home in Wisconsin to Washington today for a meeting of U.S. bishops, and she thinks they should hear what she has got to say.
"Because of their negligence, my son is dead. I think that's a pretty good reason for them to listen to me, don't you?" she said.
After an unusual hearing last month, a judge in Hudson, Wis., ruled that a Catholic priest, the Rev. Ryan Erickson, "probably" murdered James Ellison, 22, and Daniel O'Connell, 39, on Feb. 5, 2002.
The troubled and troublesome priest, who had a penchant for real handguns and for pretending to shoot people with his thumb and index finger, avoided prosecution by hanging himself from a rectory fire escape last year.
But at the conclusion of the "John Doe hearing" -- a form of trial without a defendant that is allowed in just five states -- St. Croix County Circuit Judge Eric J. Lundell said he was convinced that Erickson, 31, shot the two men after O'Connell accused him of molesting children.
"On a scale of 1 to 10 as far as strength of evidence, I would consider this a 10," the judge said.
Today, members of the devoutly Catholic O'Connell family and the staunchly Lutheran Ellison family are coming to Washington in hopes of addressing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which will meet in a downtown hotel for the next three days. The families' goals may sound fuzzy and quixotic; their 10 representatives say they want "accountability from the bishops" and a meeting with the pope.
But they also have drafted steps they think the church should take. They want a mechanism for punishing seminary rectors and bishops "who recklessly ordain troubled seminarians." They want disclosure of the names and whereabouts of "every admitted, proven or credibly accused Catholic cleric." They want each bishop to publicly acknowledge his mistakes, meet with victims and support legislation in all 50 states to lift the criminal and civil statutes of limitations in child sex abuse cases.
They call it the O'Connell-Ellison Five-Point Plan. They take it seriously, and they think the Catholic hierarchy should, too.
"I'm trying to work my way up to the top, because our bishop hasn't called us once. Not once," said Janet O'Connell, 74, mother of one victim. "I want to keep going up the ladder until I get some kind of an answer. It's got to stop."
Of the more than 11,000 cases of child sexual abuse by about 5,000 U.S. priests that have been reported by U.S. dioceses, the Erickson case is the only one that ended in a double murder and suicide. In that respect, it is unique. But there is nothing unique about the desire of the O'Connell and Ellison families to give their loss meaning by demanding changes in the church.
After three years of settling lawsuits, instituting police background checks and removing hundreds of known or suspected abusers from ministry, the bishops appear eager to put the issue behind them. Their former president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, declared last year that the "terrible history" of sex abuse by priests "is history." The subject is barely on the agenda for this week's meeting, which is devoted to the role of lay ministers.
More than anything else, it is the passionate, homespun efforts of sex abuse victims that keep the bishops from turning the page on the scandal. Week after week, in diocese after diocese, victims and their families distribute leaflets, deliver letters to bishops and lobby legislators.
Three of the country's 195 dioceses have declared bankruptcy because of lawsuits, but money is seldom the only demand. For the O'Connells and the Ellisons, money is not an issue. They have sought advice on how to pressure the church from one of the best-known plaintiff's lawyers in the specialized arena of sex abuse lawsuits, Jeffrey R. Anderson of St. Paul, Minn. But they say they will not sue the church.
"We want to be able to make recommendations to the pope. That sounds way out," said Thomas O'Connell Sr., 76, the dead man's father. "But when you look at it the other way, we're not asking for millions."
Dan O'Connell, who had a wife and two young children, was killed in the office of his family business, a funeral parlor. Ellison, an intern who was a semester from graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mortuary science, may have heard the shot and come running. He was felled by a bullet in the office doorway.
"We don't want two deaths to just go to waste. When this [crime] happened, I told my wife, 'I wish there were a cause, something good that could come out of this,' " said Thomas O'Connell Jr., 53, the victim's older brother. "At that time, of course, we never dreamed a priest was involved."
At first, the police investigated rumors about drug addicts seeking embalming fluids. They looked for gambling debts or spurned lovers.
It was more than a year before investigators questioned the priest. According to testimony at the John Doe hearing, Erickson knew details, including the position of the bodies, that police had not made public. He also told police that if he had committed such a crime, "I don't think I could live with myself."
Before his suicide, Erickson wrote two notes in which he maintained his innocence but expressed fear that police were going to pin the deaths on him. Some parishioners at St. Patrick's Church in Hudson, a town of about 10,000 people across the St. Croix River from Minneapolis, still believe the priest.
Thomas O'Connell Jr. said he is satisfied that the case is solved.
"I think that Dan, being a good father, recognized the importance of keeping kids safe. He had heard that the local priest may be abusing some kids, and before he took any other action he wanted to find out directly from the priest if this was going on. That's what got him killed," he said.
As for James Ellison, "he was just a great kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time," O'Connell said. There is no evidence that either of the slain men was, himself, a victim of sexual abuse.
In a statement to the press last month, the Diocese of Superior, Wis., said it was unaware of any allegations that Erickson was molesting children until Dec. 17, 2004, two days before his suicide.
But 10 days ago, Bishop Raphael Fliss apologized to parishioners and acknowledged that he had known for more than a decade that Erickson was accused of molesting a boy in 1992, while still in seminary. Because police investigated that incident in 1994 and decided not to file charges, the bishop said, he ordained Erickson in 2000 and did not remove him from ministry when the U.S. bishops' conference adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward sex abuse in June 2002.
According to testimony at the John Doe hearing, Erickson collected pornography as well as guns, had a habit of drinking alcohol with teenagers and was sent by the church for psychological evaluations at least three times. Thus, it is not surprising that Point One of the O'Connell-Ellison plan is a demand for a "disciplinary mechanism" for church officials who knowingly ordain troubled seminarians.
But the families said they do not put much trust in a Vatican-led effort this fall to inspect every U.S. seminary for signs of homosexuality. "I know of gay people, and they certainly are anything but a pedophile. I think a pedophile and a gay are two different things," Janet O'Connell said.
Nor are the families satisfied with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that the bishops passed three years ago.
"Sure, they've got it on paper. They've also got it on paper that there's a lay review board" to review abuse allegations in every diocese, said Thomas O'Connell, the brother. "But Erickson had a lot of questions about his past, and it never went to a single lay person. It went to the bishop's office and was buried right there."