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

He later expressed himself on that topic in a "thought for the day" e-mailed to his followers: "Even Sunday Mass is not safe from the immodest dress of some devils. They come to read, give out Holy Communion, etc....looking like an advertisement. There [sic] immodest dress says to all present: I'm easy! Please go home and masturbate to my beautiful body. The sad thing is that some do."

Father Ryan's reference to church-going Catholic women as "devils" must have struck some on his e-mail list as odd, but nobody doubted that he got his details about rampant onanism firsthand. Father Ryan aggressively sought confessional visitors. He instructed the students at St. Patrick's school to come to him for confession, and got pushy if they were reluctant. Why haven't you seen Father this week? he asked several junior high students.

The conservatives wanted Father Ryan to take a larger role at the school, but Brandner soon began to doubt whether he should be there at all. (Brandner did not return calls for this story.) She was supported by parents who didn't want him to come near their children.

"Pat [Brandner] overheard him in communion class, and what he was teaching really concerned her," says a parishioner with knowledge of the situation. "It was all this negative, pre-Vatican II stuff."

The division in St. Patrick's Church developed at the same time as the problems in the school. Patricia German, who identifies herself as a follower of Father Ryan, argues that the split came from some congregants' resistance to the hard truths that he taught.

"I know that Father's frank discussion of mortal sin offended some people, but he simply preached the real teachings of the church," German says. "They'd been hearing a watered-down version of the faith until he came. He taught the true faith and it made some of them uncomfortable. I'd say the parish was about 10 percent with us, 10 percent opposed, and the rest pretty uninvolved."

A woman who was on the other side of the rift questions whether it's that simple. She uses the example of the kneeling/standing controversy. "Bishops have a wide latitude concerning what they can do in the diocese, and Father Peter, with the Bishop's tacit approval, allowed people to stand during Consecration, because the ones in back couldn't see if they knelt. It was a minor thing, a matter of convenience, but it became this huge, divisive argument--the kneelers versus the standers."

Father Ryan's critics said he wanted to drag their church back to the 12th century, but he was quite modern in one respect: He had an extensive e-mail list, and used it to exhort the faithful and chastise the infidels. In turn, they demanded militant action against abortion and gay sex, calling public opposition to such sins a Catholic's religious duty. During the run-up to the 2004 election they distributed leaflets in the church parking lot demanding that Catholics vote for George Bush, another duty of the faith.

Patricia German's husband, Jerry, says that Father Ryan brought something to St. Patrick's that had been sorely lacking until then: passion. "He did everything passionately," he says. "Preach, hunt, fish, drink beer. He just reeked passion."

 

BY SEPTEMBER 2001, Brandner was losing her hold on the school. The parents who opposed her had leafleted cars in the church parking lot demanding her resignation, and had taken their concerns to the diocese. She had many supporters, but they had neither the zeal nor the activist presence of her detractors, and the constant agitation against her was beginning to take a toll on her health.

A confrontation with a parent named Helen Shaw put her over the edge. It was characterized as a physical attack in the Hudson newspaper.

"I did not assault her," says Shaw. "I'd been asked to drive some kids to a retreat by one of the teachers. I was in the hall when I saw her, and to this day I don't know why she called 911. I think it was a well-thought-out deal. She was bucking to get rid of several parents, including me.... And she wanted to get rid of Father Ryan too. I didn't like that, but I did not assault her."

Queried about the animosity between herself and Brandner, Shaw claims it was probably due to her own inquisitiveness.

"At the time all this happened I'd just come to my faith, and I had question upon question upon question," she explains. "I'd been Catholic my entire life but I actually hadn't found my faith until I went on a retreat called Christ Renews His Parish, and I realized there were many things I didn't know about the church. I was questioning her and some of the teachers about why religion wasn't being thoroughly taught in school. Pat Brandner had a 'How dare you question me' attitude.

"Father Ryan affected me very deeply," says Shaw. "What he did was make me aware of my faith, which is a very deep faith that requires lots of study and research to understand. He enlightened me. You'd invite him over for dinner and he'd just talk. He wouldn't even eat. He just loved the faith. He explained mortal sin to me, and I really didn't understand that before. It's different than a venial sin, which is something that can be forgiven at Mass."

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