St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Charlotte. / Diocese of Charlotte
Denver Newsroom, Nov 19, 2021 / 16:30 pm (CNA).
A new lawsuit alleges that a long-serving Jesuit priest sexually abused a boy at a Catholic school in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1990s.
The priest’s attorney has rejected the charges as “completely false,” while the Society of Jesus and the local diocese said they are cooperating with investigators.
Attorneys representing the plaintiff, identified only as John Doe J.C., filed the lawsuit Nov. 18 in Mecklenburg County. It names as defendants Father Francis Gillespie, S.J., the Diocese of Charlotte, Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools, and two Jesuit organizations.
Gillespie was ordained in 1972 and is now 79 years old. He was recently serving in the Diocese of Raleigh, but the lawsuit concerns his time as pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption Church and School in the Diocese of Charlotte from 1994 to 2001, the Catholic News Herald reports.
Gillespie was removed from public ministry on Sept. 29 and put under supervision while the Jesuit province assists in the investigation.
The alleged victim, now in his early thirties, was a student at the elementary school. His lawsuit said the abuse took place at the church in the mid- to late-1990s, beginning when he was about eight years old.
The priest allegedly asked him to be an assistant altar server and the boy would leave class early to assist the priest at the Thursday morning weekly Mass for students. The priest allegedly began to abuse him sexually in the sacristy, where the abuse continued regularly until the boy finished elementary school.
The lawsuit alleges “severe physical and emotional damages” including depression, anxiety, mood swings, shame and substance abuse.
One attorney for the alleged victim, Richard Serbin of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, told the Charlotte Observer that he reported the abuse allegations to Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte and a Jesuit leader on Sept. 21, 2021.
Serbin said his client was, as a child, “fearful to report his abuse and forced to carry this burden alone.”
The lawsuit charges negligence, negligent hiring, retention and supervision, breach of fiduciary duty, constructive fraud and sexual assault and battery. It was allowed under a North Carolina law creating a special legal window for victims of sexual assault of any age to sue their alleged abuses.
Gillespie’s attorney, James Wyatt, called the allegations “completely false.” Wyatt said his firm planned to file counterclaims against J.C.
“The allegations are completely inconsistent with the life he has led and his devoted service to the ministry,” Wyatt said. “He is highly respected and loved by the parishioners he has served who are rallying around him and steadfastly supporting him.
Gillespie served in North Carolina’s Diocese of Raleigh from 2002-2008, then moved to the Diocese of Charleston in South Carolina. In January 2021 he moved back to the Raleigh diocese. In August the Jesuits named him as administrator at St. Mary Catholic Church in Laurinburg, North Carolina.
The Charlotte diocese reported the alleged abuse to local police and social services on Sept. 28. The allegation was announced at Masses the weekend of Oct 2-3 and in messages to families of schoolchildren.
The diocese said an independent review of its personnel files and other records found no records of any allegations against the priest.
“The Charlotte diocese has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse, and anyone who has been the victim of abuse is encouraged to seek help and report to law enforcement authorities,” the diocese said in October as reported by the Catholic News Herald.
An officer with the public information office of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said the criminal investigation has now been categorized as “exceptionally cleared – victim chose not to prosecute,” the Charlotte Observer reports.
At the time of the alleged abuse, Gillespie was a priest of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. In 2020 that province merged with the Jesuits’ USA Northeast Provinces to form the USA East Province, based in New York.
The USA East Province of the Society of Jesus said in a statement that it “takes seriously any allegation of misconduct in ministry.” The province said it is cooperating with law enforcement and the Diocese of Charlotte “to conduct a thorough investigation that will include examination by an outside review board.”
“The Jesuits remain committed to the highest standards in our conduct of ministry. We encourage anyone who suspects abuse by any clergy or employee of the province to contact local civil authorities and/or the province office,” the province continued. “We continue to pray for the victims of sexual abuse and for those working with us to protect those we serve.”
In the late 80s and early 90s Gillespie served as director of research and executive director at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research institute on Catholic issues that affiliated with Georgetown University in 1989.