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Bishop of Charlotte to preside at memorial Mass for priest accused of abuse

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Bishop Peter Jugis, of the Charlotte Diocese (Bishop Peter Jugis, of the Charlotte Diocese)

KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte will preside at a memorial Mass in Kernersville for the Rev. Joseph Kelleher, a priest who served in the Triad for a number of years and who was accused of child sex abuse in 2010 for an alleged incident more than 30 years earlier in Albemarle, according to the Winston-Salem.

Bishop Peter Jugis will lead the service at Holy Cross Catholic Church on Wednesday morning. Kelleher, 86, died in High Point on Aug. 20, weeks after a criminal charge against him was dismissed because of his poor health.

“The bishop always celebrates memorial Masses for priests,” David Hains, the director of communication for the diocese, said on Saturday. “Father Kelleher is a lifelong Catholic. This is the type of Mass that would be celebrated for the life of any Catholic.”

The Charlotte leader of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), David Fortwengler, called the bishop’s decision “painful.”

“I’m really disappointed and sad for the victims of Father Kelleher,” Fortwengler said. “I’m not shocked. I’m not surprised, but I sure wish they cared about the victims as much as they do about the offending priests. I certainly do not rejoice in his death. But they could certainly do it more low key without the bishop presiding.”

“There’s not a whole lot of question that (Kelleher) is an offender,” Fortwengler said. He cited a 2011 court document in which a prosecutor said that Kelleher admitted to police that he had improperly touched the victim.

“To see him buried with full priestly honors and a bishop presiding? It is painful. It is hurtful,” Fortwengler said.

Kelleher had served at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Lexington in the 1990s and was also chaplain at Bishop McGuinness High School during the 1990s and after his retirement in 1999.

Kelleher was placed on leave from Bishop McGuinness after he was charged with one count of taking indecent liberties with a child. Kelleher’s arrest came after a man came forward in 2010 and accused the priest of sexually abusing him in 1977 when he was 14 and Kelleher was pastor of Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Albemarle.

Kelleher was living in a retirement home in High Point when a Superior Court judge in Stanly County dismissed the charge in July, saying that Kelleher did not have the mental capacity to go on trial.

A doctor had given the court a statement that Kelleher suffered from dementia and various physical ailments, including heart disease.

Two civil lawsuits were filed against the Diocese of Charlotte for alleged sex abuse by Kelleher and another priest decades ago. Those cases were dismissed by a Mecklenburg County judge a few weeks before the criminal case against Kelleher was dismissed. Attorneys for the diocese argued that the four plaintiffs had missed the state’s deadline for filing such complaints.

Kelleher was born in Ireland in 1928. He became a Trappist monk in 1953 and was sent in 1954 with other monks to New Zealand to establish an abbey. On his return to Ireland in 1961, he received permission to leave the monastery and become a diocesan priest, coming to North Carolina in 1966.

Known to many as “Father Joe,” Kelleher was popular in a number of parishes. More than 100 people expressed their support of him after his arrest by attending a candlelight vigil at Miller Park in Winston-Salem.