The Rev. Michael Joseph Kelleher, who served Catholic parishes in North Carolina for nearly a half-century but battled legal troubles in his final years, died Wednesday at a retirement community in High Point.
His death, at age 86, was announced by the Catholic News Herald, the newspaper for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.
Kelleher was a pastor at several churches in Charlotte and elsewhere in the western Carolinas after moving to North Carolina in 1966. “Father Joe” was a popular clergy member who maintained support from some former parishioners even after he was charged in 2010 with child sex abuse.
Those charges were dropped by a judge less than two months ago because of Kelleher’s poor health, court officials said.
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Kelleher, born in Ireland, came to North Carolina in 1966 as a priest in the Raleigh diocese – at the time, North Carolina’s only diocese. He moved to the Charlotte diocese when that was created in 1972. Kelleher’s pastoral assignments included Our Lady of Assumption and St. Patrick Cathedral churches in Charlotte; St. Dorothy in Lincolnton; and Our Lady of the Annunciation in Albemarle.
When he left Our Lady of Assumption in 1986, an Observer story recounted how church members cried at his farewell Mass. A number of parishioners at the church complained to the bishop for moving Kelleher to an Asheville church.
In 2010, a man came forward and claimed he was abused by Kelleher in 1977 at the Albemarle church. The sex abuse claim also led to a civil lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese, but a judge in Mecklenburg County tossed out that case in mid-June, ruling that the claim missed the state’s deadline for filing such complaints.
Kelleher’s final assignment was as chaplain at Bishop McGuinness High School in Winston-Salem. He was placed on leave by the diocese after he was charged in the Albemarle case four years ago.