Tuesday 24 April 2018

Former priest jailed for paying dissident republicans to intimidate a relative

Father Francis Kelleher, pictured at Cork Circuit court. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Cork Courts Limited
Father Francis Kelleher, pictured at Cork Circuit court. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Cork Courts Limited

By Louise Roseingrave

A former priest has been jailed for four years after he admitted paying dissident republicans to intimidate a relative on his behalf.

Francis Kelleher (59), with an address in Cork city, pleaded guilty to four counts of coercion between June 2012 and January 2013.

The intimidation was carried out by the Continuity IRA, Cork Circuit Court Criminal heard.

The details of the case were ‘profoundly upsetting,’ according to Judge Sean O’Donnabhain, who said Mr Kelleher’s behaviour was ‘appalling.’

The court heard that €4,000 had been withdrawn from Mr Kelleher’s bank account and paid to an unnamed individual as threats against Mr Kelleher’s nephew Niall Kelleher (43) escalated.

Francis Kelleher, a former hospital chaplain, has since been suspended from the priesthood.

Det Garda Micheal O’Regan said that the threats against Niall Kelleher, a married father of three, commenced on June 27 2012 when three men called to his neighbours and then to his home, where his teenage son answered the door.

He told them his father was not home.

They then called to Niall Kelleher’s workplace in Innishannon, Co Cork and told him: “Withdraw the statement against the priest and drop the case or I wouldn’t see the following week, we are from the Continuity IRA.”

The threats continued on July 8 with calls in which Niall Kelleher was told to “drop the case and stop making up lies about Francis.”

In a follow up call, Mr Kelleher was told to “Drop the case or die.”

Two days later on July 8, the victim was contacted by phone and told this was his “last chance” followed by “You blew it.”

The threats then ceased until January 8th 2013, when Mr Kelleher was once again contacted by phone.

He was told: “Niall, you are a nice guy but I’ve been paid a lot of money to take care of you.”

Niall Kelleher contacted Gardai, who took the threats seriously, Det Gda O’Regan said.

In January 2013 following his arrest in Bandon, Francis Kelleher admitted he was responsible for the threats and that money withdrawn from his account was for the IRA.

The court heard that the threats had begun after Niall Kelleher sent a letter to his uncle, then a chaplain at a Cork hospital.

In the course of his duties, the former priest met a man who had a Padre Pio relic which he distributed among the sick in different hospitals in Cork.

The accused came under the influence of this man after he told him of his difficulties with his nephew.

The unnamed man told Francis Kelleher that he had links with the IRA and said ‘I can sort that out for you.’

The court heard that events spiralled beyond Mr Kelleher’s control into a ‘rollercoaster.’

 “He couldn’t have stopped this if he wanted to,” Det Gda O’Regan said.   

“Francis Kelleher confided in this man, he looked for help,” Det Gda O’Regan said, adding that the accused was ‘extremely remorseful’ after he was arrested.

 Taking the stand, Francis Kelleher apologised to his nephew for his actions.

“I never meant it to happen like this,” he said.

The unnamed individual denied all knowledge of the events and claimed the payments he received related to buying and moving furniture.

 The court heard that Francis Kelleher was a ‘timid man’ and that the unnamed man had exerted ‘huge control’ over him.

In his victim impact statement read out by Judge O’Donnabhain, Niall Kelleher said he had been extremely concerned for himself and his family, checking under his car for foreign objects and ‘suspecting every person walking around.’

He had to upgrade security at his house and work and provide for his wife and family through a period of ‘torment’ inflicted upon them.

Snr Counsel Tom Creed said his client had lost his life’s work as a priest which he had loved dearly, but Judge O’Donnabhain said this was a ‘case that goes to the foundations of justice.’

He said the case was ‘in the highest level of seriousness.’

“I accept the accused is a somewhat fragile and lonely man, he is remorseful and has apologised...for any young man and his family to be subject to this behaviour is wrong,” the judge said.

Bishop John Buckley said it was deeply regrettable that such an offence could have been committed by anyone, and particularly by a priest.

“The diocese has cooperated fully with An Garda Síochána in its investigation into this matter,” her said.

“I sincerely sympathise with those whose lives were endangered or who may have been harmed in any way by these events.

“Now that the criminal proceedings have concluded, the diocese will initiate canonical proceedings against the priest in question.”

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