Mother seeks to help sex abuse victims
ST. PAUL -- Janet O'Connell stopped at the Minnesota Legislature, but Rome is her goal. The mother of a 2002 murder victim in Hudson, Wis., encouraged Minnesota legislators on Wednesday to extend the time sex abuse victims have to sue their abusers.
ST. PAUL -- Janet O'Connell stopped at the Minnesota Legislature, but Rome is her goal.
The mother of a 2002 murder victim in Hudson, Wis., encouraged Minnesota legislators on Wednesday to extend the time sex abuse victims have to sue their abusers. Eventually, she and her husband, Tom, want to talk to the pope because a judge ruled a Catholic priest likely killed their son to hide past sex abuse.
"My son's dead because he was going to do something right," O'Connell said in an interview, fighting back tears. "Danny did not die in vain."
Dan O'Connell and employee James Ellison were shot to death more than four years ago at O'Connell's Hudson funeral home. A judge ruled last October that the Rev. Ryan Erickson, a former priest at the local Catholic church, probably killed the two after O'Connell learned Erickson had sexually abused children.
Erickson killed himself after he became a suspect.
The House Civil Law and Elections Committee heard Janet O'Connell and others testify about whether the state should extend the time sex abuse victims have to sue their abusers. No specific bill was discussed, but the panel may take one up later this legislative session.
A 1996 Minnesota Supreme Court decision allows childhood sex abuse victims to sue until they reach 24. However, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and others told committee members that is not long enough. Often, Backstrom said, they are so traumatized that they do not realize by that age what happened to them earlier in life.
"Child victims of abuse simply do not understand what happened to them -- perhaps years after the abuse happened," he said.
The 19-year veteran county attorney said tragedies such as the O'Connell and Erickson deaths could be prevented if lawsuits were filed against abusers.
Not everyone agrees with a longer statute of limitations. School, business and religious organizations argued that a longer time to file suit will cost them more, and they may not have documents needed to defend themselves decades after abuse occurs.
Renee Wilson, chairwoman of the Survivors Network Minnesota, said a 2004 survey of St. Paul sixth-graders showed 203 had been forced into sexual contact in the past year. "It shows we have problems with sexual abuse in our society."
O'Connell has made it her avocation to fix problems that apparently led to her son's death.
"We're looking for help from the legislatures in Minnesota and Wisconsin," the St. Paul native told committee members.
She and her husband, Tom, have met with a leading bishop with their request to talk with Pope Benedict XVI about priests' behavior.
O'Connell, 75, said she spends nearly full time on her quest to end clergy sex abuse. Her husband had to return to work at the funeral home after their son's death.
"The church has its way of stalling," she said.