Three former area priests named in list of credibly accused clergy

Bishop Peter Jugis
LET IT BE KNOWN: On Dec. 29, Bishop Peter Jugis released a comprehensive list of clergy credibly accused of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Charlotte since 1972. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Charlotte

As Xpress reported earlier this month, the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte announced in August plans to release a list of clergy members credibly charged with child sexual abuse since the diocese’s founding in 1972.

Abuse by DecadeToday’s release of the list shows that 14 clergy — nine of whom are now deceased — who practiced in the diocese had credible abuse allegations brought against them. None of those clergy members remain in the ministry today, and two were convicted of criminal activity.

Three of the clergy members on the list at one time served in Xpress‘ coverage area:

  • Justin Paul Pechulis, who died in 1983, was named in a civil lawsuit filed in Buncombe County Superior Court in 2008. The suit alleged that Pechulis, a Philadelphia priest and a third unidentified man had abused the petitioner in 1976 or 1977, while Pechulis was pastor of St. Lawrence Catholic Church (now Basilica). The alleged victim claimed in the suit to have been 15 or 16 at the time of the abuse. According to the Diocese of Charlotte, “The Charlotte diocese’s Lay Review Board found the allegation credible in 2008. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2010.”
  • Michael Joseph Kelleher was the subject of an online allegation of abuse in 2010. The anonymous writer had allegedly been “abused by Kelleher at Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Albemarle in 1977, when he was 14 and Kelleher was pastor there,” according to the diocese’s account. Although Kelleher was retired at the time of the allegation, he still occasionally served as a priest in Kernersville. The diocese removed him from the ministry in June 2010. One count of indecent liberties with a child, a felony, was filed. Kelleher admitted the abuse in interviews, according to court documents. In July 2014, the charges were dropped on account of Kelleher’s inability to stand trial due to poor health; he died the following month. Other alleged victims came forward to charge that Kelleher also had abused them at Hendersonville’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and churches in Charlotte when they were minors in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the diocese, “Law enforcement in Charlotte and Henderson County investigated the claims but did not pursue charges. The diocese’s Lay Review Board found the allegations credible.”
  • Charles Jeffries “Jeff” Burton was accused in 1994 of having inappropriately touched and made advances to a 17-year-old boy in 1982 at a youth ministry center in Flat Rock. At the time of the report, Burton’s religious order, the Maryland Province of Jesuits, sent him for treatment and then returned him to ministry in New Jersey. The incident resurfaced during a 2007 review of the order’s records, at which time Burton acknowledged the incident. He was removed from the ministry and died in 2011.

More information can be found in the press release below and at www.accountability.charlottediocese.org.

 

Press release from the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte:

Charlotte diocese publishes list of 14 clergy credibly accused of child sexual abuse

  List aims to promote healing for victims and demonstrate commitment to transparency

  Review shows no priest serving today has credible abuse allegation against him

  Abuse peaked in 1970s and dropped sharply in 2000s as new protections took hold

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte today published a list of 14 clergy who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse in western North Carolina since the diocese was established in 1972.

The list is the result of a year-long process that included a comprehensive, independent review of more than 1,600 files dating back almost 50 years to ensure a full accounting of credibly accused clergy in the diocese’s history.

The file review confirmed that no clergy member serving in the Charlotte diocese today has a credible allegation of sexual abuse against him. Records also show that all 14 clergy named on the list were long ago removed from ministry or died before allegations arose. Most of their names also were made known publicly years ago by the diocese and others.

Reflecting national trends, the review found that instances of alleged abuse in the Charlotte diocese peaked in the 1970s and dropped sharply in the 2000s as new protections were put in place by the Church. In the last 20 years, one credible case of abuse is alleged to have occurred in the diocese.   

“It is painful to even try to comprehend such gravely immoral behavior,” Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis wrote in a letter published Monday along with the list and other abuse information. “However, in speaking with survivors and hearing their stories, it is clear to me that making known the names of their abusers can promote healing for them and their families.”

“This list is the culmination of a process begun more than a year ago in our belief that a full accounting of credibly accused clergy would provide validation for victims and demonstrate our commitment to transparency and accountability,” wrote Jugis. On Sunday, the bishop offered prayers for abuse survivors and told parishioners about conclusions of the diocese’s file review during Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral in Charlotte.

In addition to its list, the Charlotte diocese published information about credibly accused clergy who served in western North Carolina before the Charlotte diocese was established in 1972, when the Diocese of Raleigh oversaw the Catholic Church across the state. Also identified were clergy who served without documented incident in the Charlotte diocese but were accused of abuse or misconduct elsewhere on lists published by other dioceses and religious orders.

The diocese compiled the information on a new webpage, www.accountability.charlottediocese.org, which also features resources including a new hotline for reporting sexual abuse operated independently by Red Flag Reporting. The hotline allows people to speak up, anonymously or not, when suspected sexual abuse or other unethical activity is noted.

The accountability webpage is the latest in a series of steps the diocese has taken to prevent child sexual abuse since 2002, when the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The Charter mandates a zero-tolerance policy, strict screening and training standards, and protocols for reporting and preventing abuse in all U.S. Catholic churches, facilities and programs.

In the fall of 2018, the diocese set in motion a multi-layered process to publish the names of clergy credibly accused of child sexual abuse. The diocese automatically placed on its list clergy who had admitted to allegations or were charged by law enforcement with child sexual abuse offenses. In addition, the diocese placed on its list all clergy who were determined by its Lay Review Board to have been credibly accused.

To ensure historical allegations were identified in the diocese’s files, independent investigators from U.S. Investigative Security Services of Charlotte reviewed 1,600 personnel files of priests, deacons and religious brothers, as well as other archives, for any indication of allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Their review took more than 1,000 hours and encompassed 150,000 pages of documents. As a result, four credible cases of alleged abuse handled before the Charter protocols took effect in 2002 were surfaced from the files and included on the list.

“As with most organizations, very little attention had been paid to our personnel files going back almost 50 years, but we knew it was important to explore their contents and make relevant information known,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Winslow, a canon lawyer and former promoter of justice who oversaw the file review as the diocese’s newly appointed vicar general and chancellor. “Today, we sincerely hope our efforts will provide some validation for abuse survivors and promote a culture that allows people who may be suffering in silence to come forward and seek help.”

The Charlotte diocese has embraced – and built upon – the Charter protocols. Protections today include:

  Immediate required reporting of all abuse allegations to civil authorities.

  Required background checks and Safe Environment training for all personnel and volunteers.

  An independent Lay Review Board to investigate and determine credibility of abuse allegations.

  A rigorous code of conduct that prohibits Church personnel and volunteers from being alone with children, except in rare circumstances that involve parental oversight.

  A local college seminary, founded in 2016, to promote local vocations, reduce reliance on outside clergy and more closely guide the formation of its future priests. 

“Please pray with me that this information achieves the goal of bringing healing to victims,” Jugis said in his letter. “With the Lord’s help, we can continue fostering a safe and supportive environment in our parishes, schools and ministries so that the Church in western North Carolina can help lead future generations to Him.”

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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