Priest Was under Investigation Months before Removal from School

By Sharon Smith
July 20, 2010

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's a situation any church or school may have to confront: an employee is accused of sex crimes against a child. The police investigation can take months to bring charges, let alone a conviction. At what point should an employer remove the accused from his or her position with children?

The Diocese of Charlotte is dealing with that same situation now.

In September, an alleged victim came forward to police saying Father Joseph Kelleher molested him as an alter boy. The year was 1977 in the small town of Albemarle.

Fast forward 33 years, Kelleher is out on bond and facing charges for the crime.

Although the investigation started months ago, Kelleher was not placed on administrative leave by the Diocese of Charlotte until July when he was arrested.

For the past 11 years, he's worked as the chaplain at a Catholic high school in Winston-Salem.

The Diocese says it became aware of the allegations in January and contacted the Department of Social Services in Stanly County.

"What we had back in January was an anonymous allegation. I don't know if you would consider if fair to remove someone based on an anonymous allegation," said David Hains, spokesperson for the Diocese.

"We have a fairly long record in the Diocese of dealing with these things directly," he said, once they decide an allegation is credible.

By comparison, officials with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools say they will suspend an employee immediately after sexual abuse allegations surface, even before charges are filed.

"It's definitely a difficult line to walk," said Anne Pfeiffer with Pat's Place in Charlotte, an agency that works with abused children.

"I always want to err on the side of making sure children are safe," she said.

Pfeiffer says it's common for children to report abuse months, or even years after it's taken place.

"I think in a lot of ways, we're lucky our system is built so somebody can come forward even years later and allegations can be investigated," she said.

Pfeiffer said there's often a trust dynamic between children and their abusers which can be difficult to overcome, especially when that abuser is a member of clergy, a teacher, or relative.

Hains said tougher policies have been put in place since 2002 to protect children who attend churches within the Diocese.

As for this case, Kelleher will have a bond hearing in August.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.