Last week was another difficult week for local Catholics. As the Church convened a worldwide summit dealing with the endless sex abuse crisis, the Diocese of Richmond released a list of clergy who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. On that list were two monks who previously served in the Charlotte Diocese, which has refused to disclose its list of credibly accused priests. If that list is ever released, the name of Joseph Kelleher will appear. He was the parish priest at Our Lady of Assumption, my childhood church and school, a relatively small faith community in what was then a much smaller Charlotte.
Coincidentally, going through old photos recently, one in particular caught my attention. It was my 8th grade class graduation photo. There we were, all 18 of us standing on the steps of the church, looking like a million bucks, posing with our school principal, our teacher, and our larger than life parish priest, Joseph Kelleher. And that’s where the memories get complicated. In 2010, Kelleher was charged with and admitted to police that he sexually assaulted a student in Albemarle in 1977, shortly before being moved to Charlotte. We also know he’s been accused of assaulting at least one of my classmates in 1981. Looking back, I can’t say I’m completely surprised. Kelleher was a big hugger and often encouraged me to sit on his lap. On more than one occasion, he either had an object in his pocket or … well, you get the picture. I never pulled away and I never ran. What happened to my classmate could have easily happened to me.
But this isn’t really about me or Kelleher. It turns out he is just one of many … or dozens … or hundreds of predatory priests in the Diocese of Charlotte. I say “or” because we really don’t know. We won’t know unless Bishop Peter Jugis decides to release a list of “credibly accused” abusers in his diocese. The Archdiocese of Atlanta, the dioceses of Raleigh, Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, Arlington, Nashville and Knoxville, have all released their own lists. Unlike his peers, Jugis is waiting on “additional instruction” before he decides to join this “stampede” of transparency, said Diocese spokesperson David Hains. With no apparent shame, he’s hiding behind survivors as an excuse to remain silent, saying he doesn’t want to “pile on” and cause further harm by releasing a list of offenders. What a bunch of cowardly hooey.
I’ve never met Jugis, but what I know about him suggests he’s a coward and a hypocrite. He fired a gay Charlotte Catholic High teacher because he got married, saying there would be scandal if the diocese didn’t officially respond to such a “contradictory message” from an employee. That’s rich, because in 2014 Jugis himself chose to preside over a memorial mass for deceased priest Joseph Kelleher. Yes, that Kelleher, the admitted abuser. And not one word was mentioned about a scandal caused by sending a contradictory message.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
I reluctantly left the Catholic Church when the sex abuse scandal erupted years ago. At that time, it was fashionable to blame homosexuality in the priesthood for a litany of wrongs within the church. Having just acknowledged my own sexuality and knowing what little I knew, I wasn’t interested in sticking around for what came next. Catholicism is a beautiful form of Christianity, full of history, rich in tradition and symbolism, supported by faithful congregations. It’s also burdened by a broken culture of sexually immature all-male leadership, emanating from dark insecurity, based upon a misguided notion of infallibility.
For many decades, while priests raped little boys and girls, superiors hid evidence and moved the predators to unsuspecting parishes. Silence became the weapon of choice. Bishop Jugis should release the list of child abusing priests. He can speak with moral authority or he can remain silent. But he can’t do both.