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

In truth, investigators didn't get interested in Father Ryan as a suspect until November 2004, when he was being questioned about alleged child abuse and volunteered his theory of the murders. According to the police, he implicated himself by revealing knowledge about the crime scene that only the perpetrator and investigators would know. They confronted him about his knowledge; he claimed a detective had told him the details. When that investigator denied it, Father Ryan suggested it may have been another cop. The other officer denied it as well.

Apparently there is a lot more connecting Father Ryan to the murders than familiarity with the scene. He drove a car resembling the one witnesses saw leaving the funeral home at the time of the murders, and he fit a description of the driver. Investigators have gone over his computer, and reportedly hold evidence gained from his e-mails and other sources. According to a source close to the investigation, it includes a reference to a confrontation between Father Ryan and O'Connell the day before the murder, in which O'Connell threatened to reveal him as a child sex abuser. Accoriding to the Star Tribune, a Hurley, Wisconsin, deacon testified Monday that Erickson had confessed to the crime, saying, "I've done it."

Father Ryan's suicide, and the ongoing investigation into his alleged child abuse, complicated matters for the police. According to one source familiar with the investigation, some of the child victims came from conservative Catholic families that were reluctant to believe Father Ryan had abused their kids. They impeded the investigation, and until it was complete, investigators couldn't fill in the blanks concerning Father Ryan's motive for murdering O'Connell.

According to the same source, some of the victims "came of age" and began talking to investigators on their own. One 20-year-old witness, the Star Tribune reports, has testified that Erickson gave him alcohol and fondled him at the St. Patrick's rectory.

The closing of the case will come as a great relief to most of Hudson's citizens, but Father Ryan's hard-core supporters will find it difficult to accept. When pressed, these people will admit that "the hanged priest" hung himself, but they also hint at a mysterious martyrdom. In death as in life he remains a divisive figure, either murdered or hounded to an early grave by demonic liberals according to his devotees; dead of a self-imposed penance after a subconsciously compelled confession according to his critics.

One of his followers, Darla Meyers, has become a regular on right-wing talk shows and the far-right print media, where she frequently invokes the memory of Father Ryan during her discussions of abortion. Meyers is the gatekeeper of a secretive website devoted to Erickson's memory. Anyone can get to the home page at fatherryanerickson.com, but only the chosen make it into the messages section, where Erickson's disciples share their memories of the man who had such an impact on their lives. Requests for a password to the inner sanctum are answered with a query: How did you know Father? Journalists are not welcome.

Occasionally, though, tributes to Erickson make their way onto Matt Abbott's Renew America website, and into the public domain. One such posting reads as follows:

 

"The man was incredible. The first mass he said that I attended he cried when he consecrated the host. I thought I was going to also. The reverence that man had for the Eucharist was breathtaking.

"What a picture--a 31-year-old man wearing a cassock--his vestments were beautiful. He dabbled in Latin in the Mass, but the convent of liberal nuns were none-too-happy with that. Didn't stop him though.

"Father Ryan inspired faith in me by his deep faith and his dedication to preaching the truth. There were times when tears would enter his eyes during the consecration of the Holy Eucharist, and he would preach hard truths that most people would shy away from.

"Unless a suicide note was left behind in the priest's handwriting, I would be cautious about labeling this a suicide. With a murder investigation involving the priest underway, I think it not beyond the realm of possibility that someone murdered the priest by hanging him in order for it to appear to be a suicide. I hope this case is thoroughly investigated. Sometimes the obvious answer is not the correct one.

"Wait until all the facts are in. Setting up a fall guy to stop a murder investigation is not so far fetched."

 

Helen Shaw's attitude toward the upcoming announcement could come from many of Erickson's supporters. She is aware that Father Ryan suffered from depression and she believes he was pushed into committing suicide. "I know that they questioned him about sexual acts with kids and I think when they did that his heart about fell through the floor," she says. "This man loved kids."

She does not believe Father Ryan committed any of the transgressions attributed to him. Amid all the newspaper coverage and the lurid details, has she ever questioned the holiness of the hanged priest?

"No," she says, "never."

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