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Sex abuse suits against diocese come before judge

Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Robert Bell plans to rule by June 20 on whether to throw out or clear for possible trial two civil cases against the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte that center on alleged sexual abuse of children by two priests decades ago.

On Friday, attorneys for the diocese asked that the judge dismiss the lawsuits – brought on behalf of four alleged victims – because those bringing them missed the window that state law allows for such cases to be filed.

The alleged incidents of abuse by the Revs. Joseph Kelleher and Richard Farwell happened in the 1970s and 1980s in Charlotte, Albemarle and Salisbury. The lawsuits against the diocese were filed in 2011 and 2012.

“The plaintiffs conducted no investigation (of what happened) for decades,” said Josh Davey, one of two lawyers representing the diocese. “And the diocese didn’t do anything to cause delay (of the filing of the lawsuits).”

But lawyers representing the four alleged victims argued that a jury should decide such statute of limitations issues, as well as whether the diocese and its bishops failed to follow up on early reports of these and other cases of alleged child sex abuse.

Attorney Sam McGee, whose client has accused Kelleher of sexually abusing him in 1977 and 1978 in Albemarle, when he was 14 years old, said it takes years for many child sex abuse victims to get past feelings of shame and depression and find the courage to act.

“They have to figure out how to put one foot after the other and stay alive,” McGee said. “You say to my client: ‘You did nothing (for years).’ My client says to (the diocese): ‘What did you do but turn a willful blind eye?’ 

While Kelleher, now in his 80s, was given a place to stay in a nice retirement home, McGee told the judge, his client has been in 10 psychiatric hospitals over the years and is now penniless.

After public accusations against Kelleher surfaced in 2010, the diocese put him on administrative leave, meaning he could not publicly celebrate Mass, hear confessions or wear priestly garb in public.

At Friday’s hearing, three of the alleged victims, now in their 40s and 50s, were referred to only as “John Doe.” The fourth, Vincent Cook, died three years ago and his estate is among the plaintiffs.

The two priests have both faced criminal charges in connection with the alleged incidents.

In 2004 in Rowan County, Farwell pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. One of the lawsuits alleges that he sexually abused a teenage boy on three occasions: in 1983, in the rectory of St. Ann Catholic Church in Charlotte; in 1984, while in a car near the Blue Ridge Parkway; and in 1984, at the rectory of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Salisbury.

Kelleher was charged in 2010 in Albemarle with one count of taking indecent liberties with a child. But the criminal case – centering on the alleged 1977 molestation at Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church – has still not come to trial. A second man came forward in 2010 to accuse Kelleher of fondling him at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Charlotte in 1981. Charlotte police investigated but have not filed any charges.

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