A Superior Court judge in Stanly County dismissed a child sex abuse charge against a Catholic priest Tuesday, saying the Rev. Joseph Kelleher doesn’t have the mental capacity to go to trial.
Kelleher, now 86, is living in a retirement home in High Point and, according to a statement to the court from his doctor there, suffers from dementia and various physical ailments, including heart disease.
A native of Ireland who was part of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte for decades, Kelleher was arrested in 2010 after a man came forward to accuse the priest of sexually abusing him in 1977, when he was a 14-year-old boy in Albemarle. At that time, Kelleher was pastor at Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church. The alleged incident happened in the church parlor.
Kelleher was charged with one count of taking indecent liberties with a child. His attorney, Charles Brown of Albemarle, said Tuesday that he had pleaded not guilty. But according to court papers filed in 2011 by Kisha Scott, an assistant district attorney in Stanly County, Kelleher, in speaking with police, “admitted to touching the victim’s penis ….”
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On Tuesday, Brown would say only that “under the circumstances, the court made the correct ruling.”
But Charlotte attorneys who represented the alleged victim questioned why no action was taken on Kelleher’s case for nearly four years.
“I do not understand why this case was never tried and became one of the oldest, if not the oldest, criminal case pending in Stanly County,” said Seth Langson, who initially represented the alleged victim in Albemarle. “Justice delayed was certainly justice denied.”
Sam McGee, who is now the alleged Albemarle victim’s lawyer, echoed Langson: “This case has been pending for a long time, and if (Kelleher) is allegedly incompetent (to stand trial) based on dementia, which as we know gets worse with time, I can’t help but wonder if it could have been prosecuted and concluded before dementia ever became an issue.”
The Observer requested an interview with Stanly County District Attorney Reece Saunders or Scott, the assistant DA who has handled the case, but neither responded.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner dismissed the charge against Kelleher because, based on evaluations ordered by the court, “the defendant lacks the requisite mental capacity to proceed in this matter, and the … likelihood of restoring his capacity is unlikely.”
She based that conclusion on two assessments – in April and June – from Dr. Mark Hazelrigg of Central Regional Hospital in Butner. In a June 9 report to the court, Hazelrigg said that, after “forensic evaluation” of Kelleher, “in our opinion, he is incapable to proceed.”
Tuesday’s dismissal of the criminal case comes less than two weeks after a Mecklenburg County judge threw out two lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte for alleged sex abuse of children decades ago by Kelleher and another priest. Attorneys for the diocese argued that the four plaintiffs had missed the state’s deadline for filing such complaints.
In a hearing last month on those lawsuits, Sam McGee, who now represents the alleged victim in Albemarle, told the judge that while Kelleher is living in a nice retirement home, his client has been in 10 psychiatric hospitals over the years and is now penniless.
Kelleher was not in court on Tuesday. Brown, his attorney, told the judge that he would only be able to get to Albemarle via ambulance, according to the Catholic News Herald. The Charlotte diocese’s newspaper also reported on its website that Brown said Kelleher had not recognized him during a recent visit.
For years, Kelleher, or “Father Joe” to many in his flock, was a popular figure in various Charlotte churches, including St. Patrick Cathedral and Our Lady of the Assumption.
But in 2010, a man sought advice on an Internet chat room for clergy-abuse victims. He said a priest had molested him in 1977. People in the chat room urged him to contact police, and he did. That led to Kelleher’s July 2010 arrest by police in Albemarle.
A week later, a former member of the congregation at Our Lady of the Assumption in Charlotte came forward to allege that Kelleher had sexually abused him in the church rectory. He was 13 at the time. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police investigated but have never made an arrest.
Many Charlotte Catholics have stood by Kelleher, saying they don’t believe he’s guilty. But after his arrest in the Albemarle case, the Diocese of Charlotte put him on administrative leave, which meant he was not permitted, for the first time since his 1953 ordination, to publicly celebrate Mass or wear priestly garb in public. He is still suspended from public ministry.
On Tuesday, diocese spokesman David Hains had no comment.
Meanwhile, SNAP, or Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, called on Charlotte Bishop Peter Jugis “to hold a news conference and admit that the men who report having been sexually assaulted as kids by Fr. Kelleher are credible, and prod others with information or suspicions to speak up now.”