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

Shaw explains that mortal sins can be forgiven if they're confessed, but there is a price to pay for committing them knowingly. "Father brought them to light," she says. "He explained what mortal sins are, and if you turn around and do them again when you know it's a sin, then your soul is in trouble."

Shaw knows that Erickson came to be viewed as a divisive figure, but she didn't see him that way. "People turned it into something divisive," she says. "He taught the truth, and there are a lot of people who don't want to hear it. He stuck to his guns. The truth is the truth and there is no variance. For example, looking at pornographic material is a sin. Well, there are a lot of men in our parish who look at girlie magazines, and they don't want to hear that. Abortion is a sin. Masturbation is a sin. They don't want to hear that, because they've had to go through it, or maybe they're for it."

A parishioner who resented Erickson's single-minded vision took exception to that interpretation of what split the parish. "Telling adults that certain behavior is sinful is part of a priest's job description," she says, "but it was all hell and damnation with him. Never a word about joy or forgiveness. Sin was all he wanted to talk about. Most people get tired of that, no matter what they believe."

According to Shaw, not only gay sex, but simply being gay, is a sin. "It's a choice," she says. "That's been proven. I've read studies on it." She explains that people who aren't attracted to the opposite sex may be meant to be celibate. She finds rumors that Erickson was gay laughable. "He was a very holy priest," she says.

Asked how she could be so sure about the priest's sexual orientation, Shaw replies, "I'm a mom and you just know these things. My kids were very close with Father Ryan. They went to his night prayers, they fished with him, they hung out with him. He was at our house all the time. When a priest comes into your life like that and he's young, you think, 'Oh-oh, better be careful.' You watch for signs, you pop into rooms, and never even once did I come close to thinking there was even a possibility."

Shaw says she was glad and relieved when Brandner resigned early in 2002. It was during the turmoil leading up to her resignation that O'Connell and Ellison turned up dead. Police would later ask Erickson to account for his whereabouts when the murder occurred. He informed them that he was at St. Patrick's school, and a sign-in sheet placed him there. But no one could recall seeing him.

Erickson had always been weepy during services. His supporters took it as a sign of passion; his detractors assumed he had a screw loose. But after the murders his behavior became more erratic. Shortly before the priest was assigned to another church in September 2003, startled parishioners who entered the sacristy found him howling and weeping about the sin of abortion.

At least a few parishioners complained to the diocese about this episode, and some believe that his reassignment to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, came as a direct result. Others say it was simply routine.


IN AUGUST OF this year, Hudson investigator Jeff Knopp and police chief Richard Trende said that evidence they'd collected tying Erickson to the murders would be presented at a closed hearing. County Attorney Eric Johnson announced that he would review the evidence, go over it with the victims' families, then make it public. Yet all the way into the early fall, many rumors about Father Ryan were still circulating from the first months after the murders.

One that persists doesn't involve the killings. It concerns a medieval twist on church politics. St. Patrick's head priest Szleszinski was stricken with a mysterious illness a few months before Father Ryan was reassigned. He didn't respond to treatment, and his life seemed to be in danger. But he recovered just as mysteriously, shortly after Father Ryan left. He retired in apparent good health in January 2005.

Some of Father Ryan's critics wonder if he was trying to poison his way to the top. He'd made no secret of his desire to take over at St. Patrick's, and even did so unofficially when Father Peter left on a vacation during Father Ryan's tenure there.

"He just stepped in and acted like he was the head priest," says a parishioner. "He found himself a monsignor's outfit and started wearing it. It really looked ludicrous on this baby-faced young man. It was like a Saturday Night Live routine."

Intern James Ellison seems to be the forgotten victim in a crime that is almost invariably described in news reports as "the O'Connell slaying." According to his family he was a hard-working, good-natured young man. They were touched by a scrapbook of reminiscences put together by his classmates at the University of Minnesota that indicated how well-liked he had been. The family has been briefed by investigators several times. They refuse to divulge what they've been told, but say that it will all make sense when the facts are offered to the public.

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