Charlotte Observer [Charlotte NC]
October 5, 2021
By Joe Marusak
A Roman Catholic priest who served at two parishes in the Raleigh Diocese until last week is accused of sexually abusing a student at a Charlotte parish in the 1990s, the Diocese of Charlotte said Tuesday.
The Rev. Francis Gillespie, 79, is alleged to have committed the abuse at Our Lady of the Assumption Church on Shamrock Drive in east Charlotte in the mid- to late-1990s, when he was pastor of the church and its school, according to a statement by the Charlotte Diocese. Gillespie served as pastor from 1994 to 2001, diocesan officials said.
The abuse is alleged to have occurred in the church, not the school, according to the diocesan statement.
The accuser recently reported the abuse to the Charlotte Diocese and Gillespie’s New York-based supervising religious order, the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus, diocesan officials said.
The Catholic News and Herald, the Charlotte diocesan newspaper, first reported the allegation on Monday.
In August, the Jesuit order appointed Gillespie as administrator of St. Mary Catholic Church in Laurinburg, southeast of Rockingham, until a new pastor could be assigned, according to the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh website. He also assisted with Mass at Lady of the Snows Mission in Elizabethtown, between Fayetteville and Wilmington, on Saturday evenings.
In the early to mid-2000s, Gillespie served for several years at St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church in Raleigh, according to the News & Observer’s archives.
The Raleigh Diocese, in a statement to the Observer on Tuesday, said it immediately removed Gillespie from St. Mary after receiving the allegation. Gillespie was removed “pending further investigation,” according to the statement.
The Jesuits also removed him from ministry on Sept. 29, pending a police investigation, according to the Charlotte Diocese’s statement and a separate statement by the religious order.
Gillespie previously served in the Raleigh Diocese from 2002 until 2008, when the Jesuits moved him to the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., the News and Herald reported. The Jesuits returned Gillespie to North Carolina in January, according to the newspaper.
NO CRIMINAL RECORDS FOUND IN CHARLOTTE
In Tuesday’s statement, the Charlotte Diocese said an independent review of its personnel and other files in 2019 “found no record of allegations from anyone against Gillespie.”
“The Charlotte diocese has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse and follows strict protections outlined in the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” according to the statement. “We encourage anyone who has been the victim of abuse to seek help and report to authorities.”
The diocese reported the allegation to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services on Sept. 28 and said it “will cooperate fully with any investigation,” according to its statement.
No record of an arrest or criminal charge against Gillespie appears on Mecklenburg County Jail website. CMPD Officer Justin Davies said the department won’t comment about whether an investigation of Gillespie is underway.
Announcements about the allegation were made at weekend Masses at Our Lady of the Assumption and to school families, diocesan officials said.
The Raleigh Diocese referred questions by the Observer, including the priest’s whereabouts, to his religious order.
In a statement Tuesday, the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus said it “takes seriously any allegation of misconduct in ministry” and encouraged “anyone who suspects abuse by any clergy or employee of the Province to contact local civil authorities and-or the province office.”
“We continue to pray for the victims of sexual abuse and for those working with us to protect those we serve,” according to the statement.
‘CREDIBLY ACCUSED’ PRIESTS
In December 2019, the Charlotte Diocese released a list of 14 clergy members who were credibly accused of child sexual abuse in Western North Carolina since the diocese formed in 1972.
The diocese serves more than 400,000 Catholics in 46 counties.
Most of the incidents allegedly occurred decades ago, and the diocese said all 14 accused clergy members were subsequently removed from ministry or had died before the allegations arose.
Officials separately listed 23 clergy members who served the Charlotte Diocese without incident but were accused of misconduct elsewhere, and six who served Western North Carolina before the diocese’s 1972 inception.
In 2020, the Rev. Patrick Hoare, pastor of Charlotte’s St. Matthew Catholic Church, was removed from active ministry after decades-old allegations of sexual abuse of a minor in Pennsylvania surfaced the year before, Bishop Peter Jugis said at the time. St. Matthew is one of the nation’s largest parishes.
And, in a lawsuit last year, a California man said he was sexually abused by Robert Yurgel, a defrocked priest who served almost eight years in prison for assaulting another child at St. Matthew, the Observer previously reported.
The Charlotte Diocese faces a few lawsuits that invoke a two-year window that temporarily nullifies the state’s usual statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases.
North Carolina used to cut survivors off from filing civil lawsuits at age 21, but the SAFE Child Act extended that period to age 28. But until Dec. 31, no age limit applies.
The state Court of Appeals is set to hear two cases in which the diocese’s attorneys argued that plaintiffs shouldn’t be allowed to use the window to revive claims that had already been dismissed. Two accusers had done so after the old statute of limitations led courts to dismiss their first lawsuits.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Sara Coello contributed.
This story was originally published October 5, 2021 1:55 PM.