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County will pay $3,000 for O'Connell suit research

St. Croix County's Finance Committee agreed Thursday to allocate $3,000 for legal research for the judge who is presiding over the O'Connell family's civil lawsuit against Catholic bishops.

Last August the parents, sister and brothers of Daniel O'Connell filed a lawsuit against U.S. Catholic bishops asking for the names of an estimated 5,000 priests the American church has identified as sexual abusers and predators since the 1950s.

O'Connell and intern James Ellison were found shot to death at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home in Hudson Feb. 5, 2002. The O'Connell family and their attorneys claim the murders occurred after Dan O'Connell confronted Fr. Ryan Erickson of St. Patrick's Church about alleged sexual abuse of boys.

The civil suit initially named 178 defendants. Nine have since been dismissed.

St. Croix County Clerk of Court Lori Meyer said last week that the Washburn County judge presiding over the case hopes to find a Hamline University law student to research constitutional issues regarding the separation of church and state.

Judge Eugene Harrington was assigned to the case after St. Croix County's three judges recused themselves.

Meyer said the counties' law libraries aren't extensive enough for the research Harrington needs so he plans to hire a student to use Hamline University's law school library. The judge estimates the research will take 200 hours. He expects to pay the student $15 an hour.

Otherwise, said Meyer, Harrington said he will have to schedule himself out of his office for two weeks and do the research himself.

"No one has had a case of this magnitude in the years that I've been here," said Meyer. The case involves constitutional issues that don't normally arise in county court.

"(Harrington) has to be well versed on the law to know how to rule," said Meyer.

"Meaning no disrespect, (but) why don't we get a judge that knows this stuff?" asked Finance Committee member Daryl Standafer.

Corporation Counsel Greg Timmerman wondered why St. Croix County's court commissioner isn't doing the research.

Having the court commissioner do the work would mean taking him off other duties, replied Meyer. She assumed the St. Croix judges would also need the extra help if they had this case.

This is a St. Croix County case and, if it goes to trial, the county will have to pay those expenses too, said Meyer.

"It could end up costing us a lot more than this in the long run."

Meyer said she could try to cover the $3,000 through her budget, and depending on how other trial expenses do this year, she might be able to do that.

The committee adopted Standafer's motion to approve the research to be funded by the clerk of court's budget if possible.