The Sins of the Father

Two murders and a suicide: The strange story of Father Ryan Erickson and the rift he made in Hudson, Wisconsin

Father Ryan won't answer those charges. On December 19, 2004, he hung himself in the hallway of the church where he'd been reassigned, St. Mary's of the Seven Dolors, in Hurley, Wisconsin. His suicide came the day after investigators executed a search warrant on his living quarters, looking for evidence that would connect him to the murders. What they discovered, according to a front-page Pioneer Press article, is child pornography on his computer, some of it involving bondage.

RYAN ERICKSON grew up in Campbellsport, Wisconsin. After his parents moved when he was in his early teens, he went to live with a priest. He spent summers with his family at a campground in Eagle River, Wisconsin. How he comported himself there has become the subject of some of the rumors swirling around Hudson since his suicide.

A right-wing newspaper, Renew America, edited by anti-abortion activist Matt C. Abbott, frequently defends Erickson. Renew America is an avatar of the macho right. Its web page features a picture of Abbott looking like a drill sergeant, and he managed to find a source in his own image to counter claims that the hanged priest was gay:

 

"Tim Schemel, who currently resides in Florida, says he doesn't 'believe Ryan could have or would have the means to murder anyone.' Schemel has heard rumors of alleged sexual improprieties involving Erickson, but nothing beyond that. And he asserts that Erickson never made any advances toward him. 'He never touched me, due to the fact that I would have killed him--friend or no friend,' says Schemel."

 

Another summer resident at the campground got a different picture of young Ryan. "He was 18 when we knew him," says a woman from Wausakee, Wisconsin. "My son was 14 and all the kids ran around together. It was pretty obvious to me that he was gay. He talked constantly about becoming a priest, and I just assumed it was because he didn't want to come out to his parents. They hung around the bar most of the time, and his father seemed kind of ill-tempered.

"How did I know he was gay? His attitude toward girls, for one thing. He was a good-looking kid, and the girls were always flirting with him, but he wouldn't have anything to do with them, which I can tell you is quite unusual for an 18-year-old boy. He said it was because of his calling. He said that some day he'd be 'Father Ryan.'"

Like several sources contacted for this article, the woman insisted on anonymity because she feared Erickson's followers. "You couldn't help liking him," she said. "He was very charming, and kind of mischievous. I didn't care if he was gay. My son would've known how to handle it if he ever hit on him, but that never happened. My son did warn me not to let our eight-year-old grandson go off alone with Ryan. He didn't say why. He didn't have to."

The only thing that really bothered the Wausakee woman about young Ryan was his heavy drinking. According to her, he got a job stocking the campground's bar, but was caught stealing booze and fired. After that incident he was never seen at the campground again.

 

ERICKSON'S FELLOW seminarians at St. Paul's Seminary referred to him as "the Monsignor" because of his ultra-conservative religious views. After being ordained in June 2000, he was assigned to St. Patrick's. Pictures of him taken around that time show a baby-faced, bespectacled young man with a dour expression.

He came to St. Patrick's with some firm beliefs: that levity had no place in sermons; that Mass should be celebrated at least partly in Latin; that it was his calling to lecture parishioners, especially children, about mortal sin. In a simpler age more experienced priests might have channeled Father Ryan's energy into something productive, and lightened up his dark side. Instead aging head priest Peter Szleszinski left him to find his own niche, and he became the central figure in a parish-wide struggle that fed his messianic impulses.

He quickly took a leadership role in the CRHP group. Many of the born-agains who attended his retreats had children in St. Patrick's school, and it was there that Father Ryan soon gravitated.

Principal Pat Brandner welcomed him at first. Brandner was a few years from retirement in the Medford, Wisconsin, public schools when she decided to take the job at St. Patrick's. She'd been an academic counselor at Medford, but she had an MA in theology and wanted to join the parochial school system.

From the beginning, she needed all the help she could get. She'd arrived the same year as Erickson, and had quickly run afoul of a group of parents who took exception to some curriculum changes, especially a reorganization of math classes. The argument quickly broke down to the parents' "conservative" approach versus the principal's "liberal" pedagogical style. Before this conflict was played out, Brandner would be harassed, intimidated, and, allegedly, physically attacked.

One of Father Ryan's chores at St. Patrick's School was sex education. His conservative supporters liked the priest's black-and-white approach to the topic, but other parents were alarmed by what he told their kids. Mortal sins and the temptation to commit them were his major concern. Abortion was high on his list, but it was trumped by masturbation, which obsessed him.

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