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Before Retiring, Wisconsin Bishop Should Disclose All Abuse

Sunday, October 9, 2005
Duluth News Tribune - OPINION

Give the Catholic Diocese of Superior credit for following the rules. In explaining why church officials failed to list the name of Father Ryan Erickson -- who authorities say murdered two men to squelch a child sex allegation before taking his own life -- in a mandated audit of accused priests, a top aide to Bishop Raphael Fliss said it was because they didn't have to.

Apparently, that's true. Though the Rev. Philip Heslin initially told the News Tribune on Wednesday he hadn't heard of a 1994 allegation against Erickson to include in a 2004 survey by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he elaborated the next day to say reporting the accusation wasn't required because Erickson was in seminary at the time. Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the bishops' group in Washington, confirms that, saying, "Neither of them (the diocese audit and a study of clergy abuse by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) report on seminarians."

So Bishop Fliss and the Superior Diocese are off the hook. Even though Fliss acknowledges receiving and responding to an alert by a Wisconsin district attorney about the 1994 allegation, and even though the claim, while never corroborated and resulting in no criminal charges, was serious enough to subject Erickson to a battery of psychological tests over the next eight years, and even as Fliss begs forgiveness from the Catholic faithful of the diocese for "not doing more to find out what really happened" in the sordid life and death of Erickson, he had no obligation to tell the bishops or anyone about it.

Obligation? How about conscience, or simply common sense? In an unfathomable decision that goes far beyond Fliss, what possible justification can the entire body of America's bishops have for exempting seminarian child molesters from the list of those that need to be monitored, removed or jailed? Does a child rapist suddenly go straight once he gets ordained as a priest?

And speaking of straight priests, the U.S. bishops' get-out-of-jail-free card for seminarians contradicts an equally misguided edict expected from the Vatican to stem child molestation by ridding seminaries of gays. Gay bashing at its finest, the directive ignores any prospect that homosexual priests can practice celibacy to any degree of certainty that straight priests can. Far more destructive, the decree would do zero to address the rape and molestation of girls. Underage females account for as many as 30 percent of victims of Catholic clergy, and women comprise about half of the membership of survivor groups.

And that leads back to Erickson, who, with at least one of his alleged victims identified as male, still managed to beat the same sort of tests the Vatican has in mind for determining sexual orientation. Earning a clean bill of health as "psychologically stable" and "heterosexual," Erickson left therapists with the major concern that "he might be vulnerable to women who would take romantic or affectionate initiatives with him."

So the bishops, intent on implementing their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," don't want to know about seminarians and the dioceses don't have to tell them. Wonderful. Are there any other exempt molester categories it'll take a double murder to learn about?

If Bishop Fliss, who is submitting his mandatory retirement to the pope at his 75th birthday in two weeks, is truly seeking repentance from his flock, he can show it by going beyond the required reporting and disclosing to the public what he really knows about abusers in his diocese and elsewhere, including those priests retired or removed from ministry due to abuse claims. In a chilling worst-case scenario, one former Missouri priest banished for child molestation resurfaced as a greeter at Disney World.

The community has a right to know and the troubled men of the cloth need help, not abandonment or a blind eye to their dysfunction. The terrible case of the late Rev. Ryan Erickson proves that all too tragically.