Thursday, July 15, 2010

A priest's charge

A priest's charge

Published: July 15, 2010

A charge of child molestation that has been lodged against a local priest brings the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal home. We have become numb to revelations of alleged sexual abuse by priests, some going back decades, but law-enforcement officials must conduct a full investigation. And as the case plays out, the public should get a full accounting of the investigation's findings.

Father Joseph Kelleher, 82, a popular chaplain at Bishop McGuiness High School in Kernersville, faces one charge of taking indecent liberties with a 14-year-old boy 33 years ago at a church in Albemarle where he was serving. His local supporters planned to hold a vigil for him last night.

"Over the past week, it's become clear that I'm not alone in my firm belief in Father Kelleher's innocence," Chelsea Merrill, a 2004 graduate of Bishop McGuiness, told the Journal. "Father Kelleher has been a close friend, almost like a family member, and a pillar of support for so many of us over the years. It's our turn to stand beside him and help him through this difficult time."

Kelleher, a Winston-Salem resident, is innocent unless proved otherwise. But his case will play out against a hard backdrop. For too long, the Catholic Church treated allegations of molestation as civil matters instead of crimes, in effect sweeping them under the rug by transferring the accused priest from one parish to another.

But over the last several years, thanks to courageous victims and investigative reporting by newspapers, the trail of negligence by church leaders in handling such accusations has led to Pope Benedict XVI himself. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that as a top church official with the authority to confront the problem, before becoming pope, he failed "to act even as the cases undermined the church's credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere."

Other denominations have also been plagued by clergy who betray all that's holy by molesting members of their congregations, but not to the extent of the problem in the Catholic Church. It has cast a large shadow on the church's many good works, as well as on the thousands of priests who tend to their parishioners with honor and compassion.

Kelleher faces an allegation that he abused the boy in 1977, while he was the pastor of Our Lady of Annunciation in Albemarle. He has been placed on administrative leave from Bishop McGuiness. He had also led a youth mass at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Kernersville. "When you have a credible allegation of sexual abuse, it puts the safety of children at risk," said David Hains, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, which oversees parishes in this area. After learning of the allegations, the diocese contacted the Stanley County Department of Social Services, and the diocese started an internal investigation that continues. The alleged victim had already contacted Albemarle police.

Free on a $5,000 bond, Kelleher is scheduled to make his first court appearance next month in Albemarle. However justice may prevail, we hope healing follows for all concerned.

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