For the past year, Shirley Ruff couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong with the former Catholic priest who volunteered with her at a Brooklyn Center food shelf.
Thomas Ericksen claimed not to have a driver's license, she said. He said he was upset by toddlers "posing" in sexual ways, she said, while their parents picked up groceries at the office of Community Emergency Assistance Programs. He seemed preoccupied by the clergy sex abuse scandal, she said, which he blamed on the requirement of celibacy.
Ruff, 65, felt guilty for being suspicious. She had never seen Ericksen do anything illegal.
Then one night in September she went online and typed his name into Google. Her stomach turned.
Ericksen, 67, had been accused of sexually abusing boys in the early 1980s while serving as a priest of the Diocese of Superior, Wis. The diocese had agreed to a settlement of nearly $3 million with at least two alleged victims in 1989, according to news reports, and Ericksen had left the priesthood.
But he continued to have access to children. In 2010, he was fired from a volunteer job at the Special Olympics in Missouri when the nonprofit learned of the allegations against him. That same year, law enforcement officials in Wisconsin had opened up a criminal investigation into the alleged abuse, and Ericksen abruptly moved to Indonesia. Before he left, he admitted to a reporter that he had "fondled" three boys. Now he was back in the country, and the criminal investigation was still open.
In a panic, Ruff turned over the old news reports to Clare Brumback, the head of the nonprofit Community Emergency Assistance Programs.
She was surprised by what happened next.
Brumback didn't fire Ericksen right away. Instead, she accused Ruff of spreading rumors and asked her why she had searched for his name online. Because Ericksen hadn't been criminally charged, Brumback told her, the situation was complicated.
Ruff was furious. She quit and walked out of the meeting.
Advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse have suggested that the Ericksen case shows how the church's failure to warn the public has put children in danger.
"Somebody's got to step up here who has real authority and use that authority to warn people about him and to get him away from kids," said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "He's obviously charismatic and he's shown an ability to keep getting positions of access to children."
Background checks are "really expensive"
Ericksen continued to volunteer for few more weeks. Brumback told MPR News that she never confronted Ericksen or contacted law enforcement, and that she eventually fired Ericksen on Oct. 3 without explanation after talking with an official from the Diocese of Superior.
She said she doesn't think Erickson's role as a greeter at a food shelf put children at risk. "He would have never been around unaccompanied children," she said. "There's not many kids that come through."
An MPR News investigation, though, found that Ericksen was able to interact with children at the food shelf. He was also able to avoid law enforcement scrutiny, because of a series of failures by the food shelf, law enforcement officials in Wisconsin and leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
• Community Emergency Assistance Programs did not check Ericksen's resume or search for his name on the Internet, steps that could have revealed the active criminal case. "Unfortunately, it would be really expensive to do a background check on everybody," Brumback said.
• Prosecutors and sheriff's deputies in Sawyer County, Wis., appear to have lost track of Ericksen's whereabouts and have kept the case open for more than four years with no charges. One alleged victim said an investigator at the sheriff's office told him a few months ago that Ericksen still lived in Indonesia. Ruff, the former volunteer, said she called the Sawyer County District Attorney's Office in September to let prosecutors know that Ericksen was living in Minnesota, but no one called her back.
Sawyer County District Attorney Bruce Poquette and Sawyer County Sheriff Mark Kelsey did not respond to several interview requests from MPR News. However, an employee in the prosecutor's office confirmed that the case was still active. "At this point, nothing from our department would be releasable," she said.
Former District Attorney Thomas Van Roy, who handled the case in 2010, said he doesn't remember it. At the time the case was opened, he refused to comment. "An assistant at the office said Van Roy's policy is never to speak to the media," the Duluth News Tribune reported in June 2010.
• Archbishop John Nienstedt did not warn the public about Ericksen until last month — even though the archdiocese had known of child sex abuse complaints against Ericksen for at least 30 years, according to documents released last month by an attorney specializing in clergy sex abuse cases.
Nienstedt also knew that Ericksen lived in the Twin Cities, though he downplayed that knowledge on Oct. 23 when he added Ericksen to a list of priests with "substantiated claims" of child sex abuse.
The list said Ericksen was "believed to be in Minneapolis." Archdiocese Chancellor Susan Mulheron said in an email that the archdiocese doesn't know Ericksen's address but that "information from publicly accessible search databases indicates he may be residing in Minneapolis."
Ericksen, however, said Nienstedt knows exactly where he lives. The archbishop sent him a letter to let him know that his name would be added to the list of accused priests, he said.
"I just want to live my life," Ericksen said. "This bishop seems to be a real square."
Ericksen "didn't consider it sex"
Ericksen said he's retired and spends most of his time watching television at his Minneapolis apartment. He said he doesn't understand the concern about abuse from more than 30 years ago.
"Whatever happened to Christianity, forgiveness?" he said. "I'm sorry that Shirley [Ruff] dug it up, because I've been clean since '83."
The former priest said he was careful to stay behind his desk at the food shelf. He did interact with children, however. "Families might bring their little kids, and I might give them a cookie to shut them up if they're bouncing off the walls," he said.
He claimed not to know about the criminal investigation and disputed the nonprofit's account of his firing. He said he was fired a few weeks ago because he "sassed off" to an adult volunteer. He didn't think anyone at the food shelf knew about his past.
In the interview, Ericksen admitted that he sexually abused children while serving as a priest. He said he didn't realize it was wrong until he received therapy years later.
"I was thinking of it as I was being a father to these kids," he said.
He sighed. "Of course, you know, the father doesn't have sex with his kids, but I didn't have sex, I didn't consider it sex."
Ericksen said his actions involved something other than rape, but he wouldn't explain. "Rape is vaginal or anal sex, and I never did any of that with any of those people," he said.
He hasn't apologized to his victims. "You can't talk to anybody that you abused, that's against the law," he said. "They'd probably shoot me if I got near them."
He also described how he created his own "safety nets" to avoid abusing children. He said he doesn't spend time alone with children and that he used to attend therapy and weekly meetings of a 12-step group called Sexual Addicts Anonymous for years. He stopped going to the meetings because he doesn't have a car, he said.
Ericksen said he doesn't understand why people don't trust him.
"I'm trying to live a life clean and decent. I don't ever want that to happen again. Doesn't anybody get that message?"
"The crime involved young males"
Ericksen was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Superior in 1973 and spent the next 10 years serving at rural parishes in northern Wisconsin. In 1983, the Diocese of Superior removed him because of reports that he had sexually abused children, according to diocese finance director Richard Lyons.
Ericksen moved to Minnesota to live with his sister and brother-in-law and receive psychological treatment at a counseling center run by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The bishop of Superior told the archdiocese about the move, according to a five-page file on Ericksen that the archdiocese turned over to attorneys in a public nuisance lawsuit filed last year.
Ericksen "has been directed to refrain from ministering in any priestly role whatsoever," Superior Bishop Raphael Fliss wrote in an Aug. 4, 1983, letter to the Rev. Robert Carlson, archdiocesan chancellor.
Within a few months, however, Ericksen had asked to serve as a music minister at St. Lawrence Catholic Church.
The pastor of the parish, the Rev. Thomas Comber, was disturbed by Ericksen's request and "decided that it will be best if he curtails the activity of this individual, particularly those that would put him in the public eye," the Rev. Urban Wagner, a chancery official, wrote in a Feb. 22, 1984, memo to Carlson and two other church officials.
Comber suggested that Ericksen "restrict himself to taking care of the poor and helping to feed those who are hungry."
The memo from Wagner makes it clear that the archdiocese knew of the allegations against Ericksen: "According to Father Comber, Father Erickson [sic] is a priest who is not practicing because of a crime that had been committed. The crime involved young males."
Carlson, who is now the archbishop of St. Louis, replied to Comber about two weeks later. "Father Ericksen is not to be involved in any official parish ministry," he wrote. "If Father wishes to offer a private Mass, you would be free to make those arrangements for him."
Carlson added, "I would be happy to discuss this case with you further if additional information is needed."
The file ends with Carlson's letter.
Ericksen said the five-page file doesn't tell the whole story about the archdiocese's knowledge of his abuse.
In the 1980s, after the move to Minnesota, a Twin Cities archdiocesan official encouraged Ericksen to leave the priesthood, he said. "It was either the chancellor or maybe the bishop in the Twin Cities, because he knew I was here," Ericksen said, referring to Archbishop John Roach.
The church official asked, "Do you think this would bring you closure?" Ericksen recalled. "And I said, 'Yeah, it probably would.'"
Ericksen said he worked with an archdiocesan canon lawyer to process the paperwork for his removal by the Vatican. As part of the laicization process, the canon lawyer would have reviewed information on the abuse. That information should have been in his file at the chancery, Ericksen said.
In 1988, the Vatican removed Ericksen from the priesthood, according to the Diocese of Superior.
A year later, the Diocese of Superior reached a financial settlement of nearly $3 million with at least two men who had accused Ericksen of abusing them as children, according to a 2010 report by the Duluth News Tribune.
The diocese declined to confirm the amount. "I am prohibited from saying anything about a settlement about that," Lyons, the diocesan finance director, said. "I can't go there."
The Diocese of Superior lost touch with Ericksen after he left the priesthood, Lyons said.
Ericksen said he got a job at AT&T's customer service department in Minneapolis and moved to Kansas City to accept a job transfer in about 2004. He lost the job due to layoffs in 2007, he said.
In Missouri, Ericksen made friends quickly. He volunteered for the local branch of the Special Olympics and connected with fans of a local baseball team, the Kansas City T-Bones.
Special Olympics officials didn't know about Ericksen's past when the organization allowed him to volunteer. "We ran a background check on him and nothing came up," public relations manager Brandon Schatsiek said in an email.
Ericksen said he didn't mention the abuse allegations because he knew the group wouldn't allow a child abuser to volunteer. "I had a past that was not exactly approved by Special Olympics," he said.
The former priest also joined a social group of baseball season ticketholders and was invited to at least one family's home for parties and for a boy's Eagle Scout ceremony, according to the group's public listserv.
Ericksen spent a lot of time online. He created accounts on Facebook, Flickr, Bebo, YouTube and other websites, often with the user name "saint_tom93" or "padretom73." He posted photos of himself with the advisory: "Girls, don't bother yourselves - I'm gay!"
He rarely mentioned his time as a priest, instead describing his love of the Green Bay Packers, baseball, the television show "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals, and "any Harrison Ford movies (Air Force 1, The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, etc.)."
"My politics is really on the left (very liberal)!" he wrote.
Ericksen would come to regret making himself so visible online.
"That was so long ago"
In 2010, Paul Eck, one of the men who had reported abuse by Ericksen in the 1980s, tried to find the former priest. He found a MySpace profile that mentioned Ericksen's volunteer work for the Special Olympics.
Eck was alarmed. He told the Special Olympics about the abuse complaints, and the nonprofit immediately fired Ericksen.
He also called the Sawyer County Sheriff's Office, and the agency opened a criminal investigation into the abuse allegations from the 1980s. (It was possible to file criminal charges because the clock on the statute of limitations stopped when Ericksen left Wisconsin in 1983.)
Eck said Ericksen sexually assaulted him in 1983, when he was 17. He had stopped by to return the priest's car after Homecoming and Ericksen suggested he sleep over. "He told me that maybe I should stay there because he didn't think my mom would appreciate it if I came home drunk," Eck said. "In my stupor, I said, 'Sure.'"
Eck said that Ericksen climbed on top of him and pulled down his underwear while he tried to sleep. He was too drunk to remember exactly what happened, but "I woke up in the morning and things didn't seem right."
Although Ericksen admitted to abusing some children, he denied abusing Eck.
"He slept in my guestroom because he was too drunk to go home, and nothing happened," he said. If he had raped Eck, he said, the boy would've woken up because "it's pretty rough on the body."
Reporters learned of the allegations in 2010, and newspapers in Minnesota and Missouri published stories about Ericksen.
Catholic officials in Superior claimed ignorance. Fliss, the Superior bishop who sent Ericksen to the Twin Cities in 1983, told the Duluth News Tribune that he didn't remember the settlement between the diocese and Ericksen's victims. "I didn't have much dealing with him," Fliss said in 2010. "That was so long ago."
Bishop Peter Christiansen, who had replaced Fliss as the leader of the Superior diocese, told the newspaper that he had "no personal knowledge of the events that took place 20 years ago" and no "current information" on Ericksen.
Despite the headlines, the scandal faded within weeks. Ericksen quietly moved to Indonesia, and the media stopped covering the criminal case.
In July 2013, Ericksen returned to the United States.
It's unclear whether anyone noticed.
Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church
Nearly four years into the criminal investigation, Ericksen said he's never been approached by law enforcement officials, though he freely admits to sexually abusing children.
Only his victims have a right to be upset, he said. Everyone else "should keep their mouth shut and leave me alone."
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.