Two Wisconsin families who believe their sons were killed by a Roman Catholic priest failed yesterday in their attempt to meet with members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But after initially being ejected from the downtown hotel where the 350 bishops had gathered for their semiannual meeting, the families were invited back into the lobby for an informal 10-minute conversation with a member of the bishops' staff.
The parents, brothers and sisters of Daniel O'Connell and James Ellison squeezed around a coffee table, sitting on the cushions and arms of a couch and two stuffed chairs. Security guards waved away reporters as the nine family members spoke quietly, with heads bowed and hands pressed between knees, to Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.
They gave her color photographs of the mustachioed O'Connell, 39, and movie-star-handsome Ellison, 22.
She gave them a promise that she would deliver their letter calling for changes in the church to the conference president, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., and the chairman of the bishops' committee on sex abuse, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"I have children as well. I can't even imagine a child being murdered. It's just got to be a continual heartache," she told reporters.
Kettelkamp, a former colonel in the Illinois State Police, replaced former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney this year as the leader of the bishops' sex abuse prevention efforts. She said she doubted that any of the bishops would talk to the families in Washington.
"I can't see it happening here," she said. "They have a full agenda."
O'Connell and Ellison were fatally shot on Feb. 5, 2002, in the O'Connell family funeral home in Hudson, Wis., where they both worked. A judge ruled last month that the probable killer was the Rev. Ryan Erickson, a priest who collected child pornography and had been accused of molesting at least three teenage boys.
The families believe that O'Connell confronted the priest over the sex abuse allegations and that Erickson shot him and his co-worker. Erickson hanged himself 22 months later.
Thomas O'Connell Jr., the dead man's brother, told reporters outside the bishops' meeting that his family remains devoutly Catholic but has not heard a word from their bishop, Raphael Fliss of Superior, Wis., in the three years since the killings.
He called on the bishops to reveal the names and whereabouts of all priests who have been credibly accused of abusing minors, and to support legislation in the states to lift the civil and criminal statutes of limitations on child abuse cases. "We're not trying to tear down the church, we're trying to improve it," he said.
Answering questions at a news conference, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson said, "the appropriate place" for the families to start is with their Wisconsin bishop, Fliss. Kettelkamp said that Fliss has sent the O'Connells a letter offering to meet with them, but they will not receive it until they return to Wisconsin.