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Judge dismisses sex abuse lawsuits against Catholic Diocese of Charlotte

A Mecklenburg County judge has thrown out two lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte stemming from decades-old abuse cases against two priests.

Superior Court Judge Robert Bell issued his ruling Friday. Attorneys for the diocese argued last month that the four plaintiffs missed the state’s deadline for filing such complaints.

David Hains, a spokesman for the diocese, said Bell “reached the correct result under the law.”

“As always, the Diocese remains committed to the protection of children and young people through background checks, education of church workers and volunteers, and the prompt reporting and investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct,” he said.

Charlotte attorney Sam McGee, who represents one of the plaintiffs, said an appeal of the judge’s decision is likely.

“Something awful happened here,” he said. “Even if it takes a long time for the victim to process, which is the typical pattern in this kind of trauma, what this ruling says is, ‘Well, there is not a legal way to address that wrong.’ 

Meanwhile, the director of a nationwide abuse group accused the diocese and its attorneys or using legal technicalities “to evade responsibility.”

“Innocent children and wounded victims have lost and serial wrongdoers have won today in a Charlotte courtroom,” said David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

He called on other victims not to be deterred by the ruling and for North Carolina legislators to reform what he described as the state’s “archaic, predator-friendly statute of limitations so that other officials will be deterred from putting kids in harm's way.”

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

Charlotte attorney Josh Davey, who helped represent the diocese, was not immediately available for comment Friday. Last month, he told Bell that the plaintiffs had missed their chance to file the lawsuits, “and the diocese didn’t do anything to cause delay.”

McGee and the other victims’ attorneys urged Bell to let a jury decide the so-called statute of limitation issues, as well as whether the diocese and its bishops failed to follow up on early reports of these and other cases of abuse.

McGee’s client says he was 14 when Kelleher sexually abused him in 1977 and 1978 in Albemarle. McGee said it takes years for many child sex abuse victims to get past feelings of shame and depression and find the courage to act.

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.

Three of the plaintiffs, now in their 40s and 50s, have been referred to only as “John Doe.” The fourth, Vincent Cook, died three years ago.

The two priests have both faced criminal charges in connection with the 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 former 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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