Retired priest removed after child sex abuse allegation

A retired Catholic priest who served much of his career in the Northland has been removed from ministry after an accusation of child sexual abuse more than a generation ago.

The Diocese of Duluth announced Sunday that the Rev. Cornelius Kelleher “has recently been credibly accused in the sexual abuse of a minor female during his time as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Chisholm from 1975 to 1986.”

A statement from the diocese said that when the accusation came to light, Kelleher was immediately removed from public ministry and has been stripped of his abilities to function as a priest in retirement.

Kelleher, 81, retired on July 12, 2012, after working since 1956 as a priest at the following parishes: St. James, Duluth; St. Joseph, Crosby; Holy Family, Eveleth; St. Mary, Cook; St. Bridget, Greaney; St. Benedict, Duluth; St. Joseph, Gnesen; St. Joseph, Lakewood; St. Joseph, Chisholm; St. Andrew, Brainerd; St. Patrick, Hinckley, and St. Joseph, Beroun.

Diocese spokesman Kyle Eller said a letter from Bishop Paul Sirba was sent during the weekend to every parish where Kelleher served before the church issued a news release.

“The primary reason we reach out is to make sure that if anyone else was hurt that they make it known,” Eller said.

On Saturday, the Rev. Eric Hastings of St. Benedict’s read Sirba’s letter at the 5 p.m. Mass, according to attendee Robert Miller.

“I will say this, that when Father Eric read the letter aloud to the congregation, he wept and called the acts of Kelleher a betrayal of everything Christ and St. Paul stood for and taught,” Miller told the News Tribune.

A news conference with Sirba has been scheduled for today at the diocese’s Pastoral Center.

“I deeply regret the long-lasting and devastating effects of sexual misconduct on the part of clergy and am completely committed to assisting its victims and preventing any recurrence of these crimes,” Sirba wrote in his letter to parishioners.

“I ask you to join me in prayer for all those who have been wounded by sexual misconduct on the part of the clergy.”

Sirba also directed victims of clergy sexual abuse to contact the diocese, at 2830 E. Fourth St., Duluth, MN 55812, or by phone at (218) 724-9111, as well as contacting civil authorities to report a crime. No formal criminal charges in connection with the accusation against Kelleher have yet been initiated.

A native of Ireland, Kelleher was profiled in the News Tribune in 2000 while serving as pastor at St. Patrick in Hinckley and St. Joseph in Beroun. He told the paper that he came to the Duluth diocese at the invitation of the then-bishop, because at the time Kelleher was in the seminary “there was an abundance of priests in Ireland and a shortage of priests in Minnesota.”

Kelleher said at the time he visited and offered Mass to inmates at the federal prison in Sandstone once a week, and was active in the church’s Marriage Encounter program.

Duluth News Tribune