Sentencing concludes long road to justice

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Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff
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Thomas Ericksen, a former priest of the Diocese of Superior, was sentenced Sept. 26 in Sawyer County Circuit Court to the maximum 30 years in prison for molesting boys while serving in diocesan parishes decades ago.

Although the church long ago settled the question of Ericksen’s fitness for the priesthood – he was removed from ministry in 1983, began a counseling program in the Twin Cities and was permanently removed from the priesthood through laicization in 1988 – Catholics may still have questions.

First, why was Ericksen permitted to stay in ministry for so long? Second, why wasn’t he prosecuted decades ago? Third, how much has abuse cost the Diocese of Superior? Finally, what has the diocese – and the wider church – changed to ensure such crimes are never again perpetrated by priests?

The bishop

Bishop George Albert Hammes, a Diocese of La Crosse native who instituted Second Vatican Council reforms from 1960 to 1985, was holding the crosier when Ericksen was a priest. Hammes died in 1993.

Ericksen was ordained June 2, 1973, in Phillips. He was in active ministry, mostly as an associate pastor, but also as a chaplain and pastor, until his removal in August 1983. He had 10 assignments in as many years – Rice Lake, Cumberland, Ladysmith-Bruce, Superior, Hudson, River Falls, Webster, Eagle River, Merrill and Winter.

Information shared at Ericksen’s sentencing indicates as many as 11 victims have come forward from those 10 years. Articles about Ericksen, which can be traced online back to at least 2010, include many inconsistencies and do not conclusively tell when Bishop Hammes was first notified of Ericksen’s behavior.

Diocesan personnel files are currently under review, said administrator Dan Blank. Until the process is complete, diocesan officials will not be able to answer the question definitively.

Although Ericksen was moved around a lot by today’s standards, Bishop James P. Powers said that was common at the time. It was very unusual for someone to be named pastor in five years, he said. Most achieved the position in six or more years.

Blank and Bishop Powers, a native of the diocese who was ordained in 1990, said the response to reports of sexual abuse would have rested on Bishop Hammes. Councils and committees would not have discussed the matter – this was long before the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People required an abuse review board – but the bishop would have consulted privately with a group of other clergy.

At the time, the governing structure of the diocese was unusual. Bishop Raphael Fliss, appointed coadjutor in 1979, was slated to automatically succeed Bishop Hammes upon his retirement. Fliss’ role in dealing with Ericksen is mostly unknown, although he was in communication with the doctor who treated Ericksen, according to documents released by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Ericksen was placed on a leave of absence in 1983. He moved to the archdiocese to live with relatives in August of that year; he began outpatient therapy with Dr. Dolore Rockers from the Consultation Services Center in St. Paul.

In 1984, then living in St. Paul, Ericksen was restricted from having any contact with diocesan seminarians. According to the documents released by the archdiocese, he’d tried to get involved in parish ministries after moving to the Twin Cities, but he had been barred from doing so.

By the time Bishop Hammes retired in 1985 and Bishop Fliss took over as ordinary, Ericksen was on his way to laicization – “defrocked,” as it was often called.

However, the church had no control of Ericksen’s activities once he’d left the priesthood. He continued to volunteer near vulnerable populations – the disabled through Special Olympics, and children and families at a Twin Cities food pantry – before he was finally arrested more than 30 years after the crimes were committed.

Meting out criminal justice was a duty that fell to the Sawyer County Circuit Court.

Prosecution

Blank, director of administrative services, spent 26 years as Douglas County District Attorney before joining the chancery staff in 2017.
He said the question of why Ericksen was prosecuted in 2019 – rather than in 1989, for example, when civil litigation was ongoing – isn’t easily answered.

“That would have been the logical time to prosecute,” he added. But, in his experience, there are a lot of factors that contribute to prosecutors’ decisions. “We can’t go back in time” and speak to the workload, pressures and context that would have influenced them, he said.

In Blank’s experience, prosecutors never catch up with potential cases. “You’re forced to pick and choose your battles,” he explained.

Or, as is sometimes the case, victims don’t want to relive the trauma. Their lives “kind of get opened up to analysis.” Or, he speculated, perhaps the evidence didn’t seem strong enough, before the advent of DNA testing.

In the early 1980s, the cultural context was different as well, Blank and Bishop Powers agreed. Child molestation was perceived as more sinful than criminal; therapists believed pedophiles could be rehabilitated and advised bishops accordingly – thus, bishops moved problem priests from parish to parish, thinking they could be cured through therapy and then plugged back into ministry.

Ericksen confessed to the molestations repeatedly, to a sheriff, reporters and officers, and those confessions were in print. But, he also made himself scarce, moving to Indonesia after the criminal case was opened in 2010.

Ericksen was arrested in 2018. At his Sept. 26 sentencing, in addition to the 30-year prison sentence, Ericksen was required to register as a sex offender for life, submit a DNA sample and pay any surcharges and outstanding court costs. He was prohibited from owning a firearm or body armor.

Settlement

When sex abuse scandals in the Archdiocese of Boston hit newsstands in 2002, a domino effect rippled across the U.S. and worldwide, revealing abuses, particularly historically, had often gone unprosecuted.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a document detailing how to protect youths, punish offenders, respond to allegations, reconcile with victims, promote healing and ensure accountability.

The charter, revised three times since its creation, required dioceses to maintain compliance with its procedures – turning accused persons over to law enforcement first among them. Dioceses were also required to participate in the New York-based John Jay College of Law study, which gauged the scope of clergy sex abuse from 1950 to 2002.

In 2004, Bishop Fliss published a letter in the Catholic Herald detailing John Jay College’s findings in the Diocese of Superior. Of the 517 priests who’d served in the diocese during the 52-year period, eight were accused of sexually abusing minors. Two, found guilty, were removed from the priesthood, and the remaining six were, at the time, either dead or retired.

The letter includes information on settlements made to victims, and notes the settlements were all made to the four victims of one priest.
At that time, according to the letter, the diocese had spent about $75,000 in legal fees and settlement costs, and insurance had covered around $550,000 in fees and settlements.

News outlets have reported the diocese settled with two victims for $3 million in 1989; one Associated Press article even printed Ericksen’s casual estimate of a $5 million settlement. Blank consulted with diocesan legal counsel to account for the discrepancy.

Bishop Fliss’ information was accurate and came directly from diocesan legal counsel, said Blank. He said the settlement would have included annuities with the potential to grow to $3 million over time – a common way to structure settlements for minors – so a much smaller amount of cash would have been paid by the diocese and its insurers up front, and then invested.

Disclosures coming

The list of priests with substantiated claims of abuse from the Diocese of Superior will be released in 2020.

Reviewers from Defenbaugh & Associates, Inc., a Texas law firm that chancery officials said has reviewed files in four of the five dioceses in Wisconsin, were at the chancery in September and October.

The process is ongoing, Blank said. After the investigation is complete and diocesan officials have a report from the law firm, they will have to go back through any flagged files.

They have “several steps to go yet,” he said. He characterizes their goal as “being careful, professional and pastoral.”

He expects it will be several months before names will be released to the Superior Catholic Herald.

Protecting children

To ensure child protection, background checks and training have been required in the U.S. church since the Charter was implemented. Anyone who has volunteered since then knows the requirements cover not only parish clergy and staff members, but all others who work with children as well.

Any reports of abuse go directly to Kathy Drinkwine, safe environment coordinator for the diocese. Drinkwine has a master’s degree in counseling, and she also worked with sexually abused children in the Diocese of Albany, New York, before joining the chancery staff.

She said her position was created in 2007; before that, several chancery employees collaborated to meet the Charter’s requirements. Consolidating their work into one position made communications with parishes “more efficient and more effective,” she explained. She was also asked by former Bishop Peter Christensen to take on another role, coordinator of assistance, in 2012.

In addition to safe environment training for adults, the Charter requires the training of minors; this year, the diocese launched a new curriculum that works for both religious education and Catholic school students and “allows consistent training across the diocese,” she added.

The new program “is authored by the Archdiocese of Omaha, which means the faith-based element is woven through it, making it easy for parishes/schools to use,” Drinkwine commented.

She said recent upgrades have streamlined the process of completing background checks and training for large numbers of people, easing the way.

“I think the people of the Diocese of Superior have embraced the need to keep our children safe. It’s just part of what we do today,” Drinkwine said. “There is little resistance compared to the early years of Charter, and with CMG Connect being available 24/7, the training and background check is a smooth process. More than 450 background checks – along with training – have been completed since Sept. 1 – both new and renewals.”
Vetting priests

Preventing the ordination of men ill-suited to the priesthood is a priority for dioceses, seminaries and, through the discernment process, seminarians themselves.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s website explains the vetting process for prospective seminarians of the Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, where three Diocese of Superior seminarians are currently studying:

“Before a man can even apply to the seminary, an extensive and rigorous screening process is conducted. Once a man applies for admission to the seminary program, the process continues with criminal background and reference checks, psychological testing, and review by an admissions board (which includes lay men and women). Once accepted, the seminarian participates in a formation program, which includes formation each year in chastity, celibacy, maturity, human sexuality and other related human formation topics. There are regular meetings with spiritual directors, monitoring of social media and internet usage, and annual formation evaluations. Seminarians are required to complete Safe Environment Education training, which includes child abuse prevention and mandatory reporting training.”

Fr. John D. Hemsing, rector of the seminary, added this comment about formation:

“As rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, I take my responsibility very seriously to oversee the guidelines and procedures set forth by the Program of Priestly Formation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and by our seminary, in regards to those preparing for priestly ministry. I want to make sure that the men who are ordained to the priesthood from our seminary are men who live happy, healthy and holy lives as they serve their dioceses and the wider church.”

Bishop’s comments

Bishop Powers released this statement Nov. 8:

“As bishop, the recent news of the prison sentence of former diocesan priest Thomas Ericksen rekindles many difficult emotions. First and foremost, we continue to grieve with the victims, and pray for their healing, and the healing of their families and friends. We also appreciate the work of the Sawyer County court system in their efforts to hold Mr. Ericksen accountable, and in allowing the victims’ voices to be heard.
“Once again, on behalf of myself and the church, I want to express by deepest apology to the innocent victims of Thomas Ericksen’s horrific sins and abuses. But just as important as my apology, I promise that I am committed to a “no cover-up” policy regarding clergy abuse. My process of reviewing all Diocese of Superior clergy personnel files, deceased and living, is moving forward, with a goal of releasing an abusive clergy list next year.

“I ask for your continued prayers for guidance as I strive to lead our diocese forward. And please continue to pray for our good and faithful priests, deacons, and religious sisters, and for those who are discerning their vocations to our church. St. Augustine, patron of our diocese, pray for us!”

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