The Sins of the Father
When Father Ryan Erickson celebrated Mass at St. Patrick's Church in Hudson, Wisconsin, the show was on and he was the star.
As he put it in an e-mail to his congregants, he liked his rituals "rich and mysterious"--a stark change from the "orgy of handshaking and hugs" to which they had become accustomed. The way Erickson hoisted the host over his head and held it aloft for a minute or more made a vivid contrast to the perfunctory elevation that the senior priests favored. Tears rolled down his cheeks during the ceremony. The monk's cassock he affected billowed theatrically, hiding the bulge at his waist from the pistol he always packed there.
Erickson's energetic performance got mixed reviews. The parishioners who were wowed by his histrionics became known as "kneelers," because they knelt during Consecration. The "standers" were either uncomfortable with his act or oblivious. Mostly they suffered in silence or opted to attend another church. The parish's spiritual life, they believed, was being hijacked by the born-agains, people they wearily referred to as "holy rollers," in reference to the way they demonstrated their fervor. Alternately, they called them "chirpers," after a retreat group that Father Ryan led named CRHP--Christ Renews His Parish.
Among the standers was 39-year-old Dan O'Connell, a member of one of Hudson's most prominent families and the owner of O'Connell Funeral Home. O'Connell was married and had two elementary school-aged children. Several generations of O'Connells had worshiped at St. Patrick's. Dan was no exception, but he wasn't very religious. O'Connell was also a Rotarian and a volunteer ambulance attendant. He served hot dogs at the annual North Hudson Pepper Fest and rode in the Dutch Days parade in nearby Baldwin. He was gregarious and sociable, and not much went on in Hudson that he didn't hear about. He saw the schism in his church firsthand every Sunday. He may have fretted about it privately, but people on both sides were buried out of his funeral home, and he had no interest in getting involved.
On February 5, 2002, O'Connell and his 22-year-old intern James Ellison were shot to death in O'Connell's office. The crime shocked the community because murders are so unusual in Hudson, and because one of the victims was such a prominent person.
The police had no real suspects three days later, when O'Connell's funeral was held at St. Patrick's. Among the priests taking part in the ceremony was Father Ryan, dressed in simple white vestments and behaving with uncharacteristic restraint. He said a quiet homily.
Unbeknownst to the mourners and the police, Father Ryan had exchanged tense words with Dan O'Connell the day before the killings, an incident that left the priest shaken. Investigators wouldn't find out about it for more than two years.
A county medical examiner discovered the bodies in the early afternoon, while he was visiting the funeral home to pick up a death certificate. The scene of the crime that he found clearly suggested that O'Connell had been the target. He was shot to death where he was sitting, behind his desk. Ellison had risen from his chair and was bolting for the door when he was shot in the back. Investigators theorized that an argument between O'Connell and the perpetrator had erupted into sudden violence. Ellison was murdered because he was a witness.
Early in the investigation the police looked into a Wisconsin-based cult, Rest of Jesus, that objects to embalming, before deciding they were harmless eccentrics. The cops also pursued the possibility that crazed potheads might have been ransacking the mortuary for embalming fluid to spike their marijuana. But the idea didn't stand up. "You don't need a license to buy embalming fluid," says Hudson Police Chief Richard Trende, "and it's not expensive. There was just no evidence to support that theory."
In fact there was no evidence to support any theory--
but there were plenty of rumors. One of them had O'Connell and his intern returning to the mortuary and discovering the perpetrator in flagrante delicto with a corpse.
Another involved Father Ryan, but only peripherally. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, O'Connell had helped organize a fundraiser for the victims, a spaghetti dinner at St. Patrick's. There was suspicion that he'd discovered someone stealing cash. Father Ryan had helped out with the dinner, but there was no evidence that any money was missing, only gossip.
If the investigators had been looking, they might have noticed that the church itself seemed to be a center of intrigue. There were threats against the church school's principal, who'd resigned under the sustained assault of Father Ryan's most fervent followers. There was Father Ryan's gun collection and his history of binge drinking. Something had happened to this once-peaceful 150-year-old parish to cleave it down the middle, and Father Ryan was the central figure in the conflict.
For two years, the questions continued. This week, at last, St. Croix County Attorney Eric Johnson is presenting evidence connecting Father Ryan to the murders. Johnson will offer an explanation for what Erickson and O'Connell were talking about in the minutes before the murder. And he will confirm what has long been whispered by Erickson's harshest critics: that the crusading sexual moralist had been engaging in the same crimes against children that have devastated the Catholic church in recent years.
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.
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."
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.
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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