Ex-local priest faces abuse suit

Kelleher once served at Immaculate Conception Church in Hendersonville

The Times-News, North Carolina/September 30, 2011

A priest who once served in Hendersonville has been named in a lawsuit against the Diocese of Charlotte alleging that the priest sexually abused two boys more than 30 years ago in Albemarle and Charlotte.

Plaintiffs John Doe 1K and John Doe 2K filed the suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte on the grounds that they were sexually abused as children by Father Joseph Kelleher, making claims of fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring, supervision and retention, and infliction of emotional stress, according to court records.

Kelleher was arrested in July 2010 and charged with one count of felony indecent liberties with a minor. The minor is now one of the plaintiffs, according to his lawyer.

Kelleher served at Immaculate Conception Church in Hendersonville from 1986 to 1991, according to the church's website. Immaculate Conception Church would not comment Thursday, referring all questions to the Diocese of Charlotte.

At least two parishioners who knew Kelleher said they thought highly of him and hoped the allegations weren't true.

The lawsuit was filed in Mecklenburg County Superior Court on Wednesday by the plaintiffs' attorneys, Seth Langson and Leto Copeley of Charlotte.

The lawsuit alleges child sexual abuse and coverup by the Diocese of Charlotte. It claims that Kelleher sexually abused the two boys when one was about 14 years old about 1977 at Our Lady of the Annunciation in Albemarle, and when the other was about 13 years old, about 1980, at Our Lady of Assumption Church in Charlotte, according to a news release issued by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

The suit, seeking damages in excess of $10,000, also alleges that the Diocese of Charlotte has concealed child sex crimes by clergy since the diocese was founded, and that such coverups continue.

Kelleher was arrested by the Albemarle Police Department on July 8, 2010. Kelleher turned himself in to authorities and was accompanied by his attorney, Charles Brown, at the magistrate's office, according to an arrest report. He was placed under a $5,000 secured bond.

Kelleher posted bail and has had several appearances for his charges, which are still pending. He was scheduled to appear in Stanly County Superior Court on Sept. 19, but his case was not heard and a new court date has not yet been set, according to the Stanly County Clerk of Superior Court's Office.

Langson said Kelleher's arrest involved plaintiff John Doe 1K.

The lawsuit says the Diocese of Charlotte knew or should have known since at least the 1970s that Kelleher was abusing minors.

Kelleher now lives in Winston-Salem. When reached by phone, he would not comment about the lawsuit, referring all questions to his attorney, who could not be reached Thursday.

David Hains, director of communications for the Diocese of Charlotte, said Thursday that he had not seen the lawsuit and, therefore, did not have any comment. Langson said that after completing their investigation into the allegations, they felt it was the appropriate time for his office and Copeley's office to file the suit.

As for the $10,000 in damages, Langson said that amount is what the law allows attorneys to ask for in a lawsuit. He would not say how much the plaintiffs are actually seeking.

Langson said he issued the news release because it has been his experience when working sexual abuse cases that victims don't often come forward until they know other victims already have come forward. 'A very fine priest'

Hendersonville resident Tom Hadley, 75, recalls Kelleher as an upstanding priest during his time spent in the mid-1980s at Immaculate Conception Church.

Hadley and his wife attend the church and said Kelleher showed that he was "a very fine priest" through Mass, his community work and his relationship with his teenage son and daughter. Kelleher also spoke at the wedding of Hadley's son in 1991.

In light of the allegations against Kelleher, Hadley said nothing unusual occurred between the priest and his children to his knowledge.

"I certainly hope (the allegations) are not so," Hadley said. "I don't think they are true, but that is only speculation. But I can't say it didn't happen."

Church members are aware of the accusations, Hadley said.

"People are dismayed. Everyone's opinions about Father Kelleher are favorable, and a great majority think the allegations are not true," he added.

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