Victims Group Questions Timing of Church's Abuse Revelations

By Peter Passi
Duluth News Tribune
October 8, 2013

Kelleher retired in July 2012. An allegation that he sexually abused a minor female emerged two months later, Bishop Paul Sirba said.

Bishop Paul Sirba revealed more details Monday about the case of Father Cornelius Kelleher, an 81-year-old retired Catholic priest removed from public ministry for alleged sexual transgressions during his 11-year tenure as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Chisholm more than two decades ago.

Kelleher retired in July 2012. An allegation that he sexually abused a minor female emerged two months later, Sirba said.

After looking into the accusations and finding them credible, Sirba said Kelleher was stripped of his priestly duties and authority in October 2012.

This weekend, Sirba shared news of the allegations and the discipline with parishes where Kelleher worked from 1956 to 2012. Those included St. James in Duluth, St. Joseph in Crosby, Holy Family in Eveleth, St. Mary in Cook, St. Bridget in Greaney, St. Benedict in Duluth, St. Joseph in Gnesen, St. Joseph in Lakewood, St. Joseph in Chisholm, St. Andrew in Brainerd, St. Patrick in Hinckley and St. Joseph in Beroun.

“We’re aiming for transparency in what we do and who we are when these cases come up,” Sirba said. “As difficult as it is, as members of a family, we need to be talking about these things. These are issues in our church and in our society.”

But a victims rights advocate raised questions about that transparency, in particular the timing of Sirba’s announcement, which overlapped with high-profile revelations of other alleged sexual abuse made to the archdiocese in St. Paul.

“It certainly makes me wonder: Is this why this came out now?” asked Vern Wagner, director of the Northern Minnesota Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

“It seems very coincidental that all this happened with all this coming out this last week,” Wagner said.

Kyle Eller, a spokesman for the Duluth Diocese, denied there was any attempt to put out the story at a time when it might be eclipsed by news of a different church scandal.

“It’s just a coincidence,” he said. “Plans for this announcement were already in process well before the stories about the archdiocese started to land.”

At a news conference Monday, Sirba explained that the diocese followed a prescribed process which included a review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

“We’re still waiting on a final decision … and that kind of altered the timeline if you will from the beginning to the end,” he said.

But Sirba said the diocese did not wait to take action against Kelleher even as the process played out.

“Our first priority, once it was credible, was to remove him from ministry and that we did rather quickly, asking him to move from where he was so that he wouldn’t be in contact with young people at a school or a church and then to also alter his faculties or put him on administrative leave,” he said.

Still, Wagner questioned why Sirba took a year to inform parishes of the charges and the investigation.

“I don’t know how he can justify that kind of delay,” he said.

Sirba said the diocese was aware of no other red flags in Kelleher’s career until last summer’s allegations surfaced.

Only one alleged victim of Kelleher has stepped forward so far, Sirba said. But he said the diocese wants to know if there were others.

“Our primary hope is to reach out to anyone who may have been the victim of a crime like this and to urge them to get in touch with authorities and with us. We want to offer whatever assistance we can,” he said. “This notification will help us to see if there are others that come forward.”

The allegations against Kelleher are from his time at St. Joseph’s Church in Chisholm between 1975 and 1986, though Sirba said he could offer no details regarding the timing of events or the nature of the alleged sexual abuse out of respect for the victim’s privacy and her desire to avoid public identification.

“I’m trying not to say too much, out of respect for her,” he told reporters Monday. “I know you’d like to pinpoint the time and the age and the exact nature of the circumstances, but it was clergy sexual abuse.”

Sirba said no charges have been brought against Kelleher.

“In our protocols and everything, we encourage people to contact the civil authorities if they so choose. In this case, the victim is not choosing to do that. And so, presently, there are no charges and there’s no litigation.”

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said no details regarding the case have been submitted to his office.

“Whether we would get involved depends on the circumstances surrounding the abuse and timetable of the incidents,” he said.

Without knowing more specifics, Rubin said, it was impossible to tell whether the statute of limitations would pre-empt any possible criminal charges.

Sirba said the diocese worked with advocates and contracted with a police officer to conduct an investigation, in accordance with church policy.

An internal review board also examined the case.

While Kelleher continues to receive a pension from the diocese, he may no longer engage in any pastoral duties, may not wear clerical garb, may not identify himself as “Father” and is not allowed to participate in the public celebration of Mass or perform sacraments.

In describing Kelleher’s response to the allegations of sexual abuse, Sirba said: “I think he has received them with the seriousness with which they were brought forward. In my meetings with him, along with our vicar general, he did express a remorse.”

Kelleher continues to reside in the Duluth area, Sirba said, who added Kelleher must now “embrace a life of prayer and penance.”


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