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'Our secret': Looking back, he thought priest was a friend. Not anymore.
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'Our secret': Looking back, he thought priest was a friend. Not anymore.

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CHARLOTTE — J.C. had been taught that priests were to be respected and obeyed.

So when “Father Fran” told him to take off his clothes and kneel before him, the 8-year-old student at Our Lady of the Assumption Elementary School in Charlotte did what he was told, according to his new lawsuit.

That set off years of escalating sexual assaults against the boy in the church sacristy where Rev. Francis Gillespie got ready to perform the Catholic Church’s sacred rite of the Mass.

According to his complaint, J.C., now in his early 30s and still living in Charlotte, kept the abuse private because Father Fran was his friend and had ordered him to do so, calling the episodes “our secret.”

No longer.

On Thursday, J.C. filed suit — against Gillespie, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools and two Jesuit groups that assigned Gillespie to Charlotte during the 1990s.

The complaint, filed in the Mecklenburg County courts, accuses the defendants of negligence, sexual assault and battery and a host of other things.

All the defendants, according to the lawsuit, failed in their duties to protect a little boy.

“Because he was only 8 years old when the abuse began, and due to his religious upbringing and the teachings of the church and school, (J.C.) was fearful to report his abuse and forced to carry this burden alone,” said one his attorneys, Richard Serbin of Allegheny, Pa.

••••

The Observer does not generally name the victims of alleged sexual abuse. In the lawsuit, the plaintiff is listed as “John Doe J.C.” His attorneys say his identity has been revealed to the defendants.

In an email to the Observer on Thursday, Serbin said he notified Charlotte Bishop Peter Jugis and a Jesuit leader of the allegations against Gillespie in late September, requesting that the priest be “immediately removed from any and all contact with children and that child welfare and police authorities in the areas of his numerous assignments be promptly notified.”

The Charlotte Diocese announced the allegations against Gillespie in early October.

Contacted about the lawsuit, a diocesan spokeswoman on Thursday referred the Observer to a statement Catholic leaders released in the fall, noting that they reported the abuse accusations to police and other authorities and will cooperate with any investigations.

The statement also said Gillespie served as pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption in Charlotte from 1994 to 2001 and had been reassigned by the Jesuits to the Diocese of Raleigh in 2002. Also, Gillespie had been removed from his ministerial position in that diocese on Sept. 29 after the allegations surfaced.

Additionally, the statement said an independent review of personnel records and other files in the Charlotte Diocese “had found no record of allegations from anyone against Gillespie.”

Gillespie, 79, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, James Wyatt of Charlotte, called the allegations “completely false” and 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 wrote about Gillespie in an email to the Observer. “He is highly respected and loved by the parishioners he has served who are rallying around him and steadfastly supporting him.”

After leaving Charlotte, Gillespie served at several parishes in the Raleigh diocese. As recently as August, the Jesuits appointed him as administrator of St. Mary Catholic Church in Laurinburg, southeast of Rockingham, until a new pastor could be assigned. He also helped celebrate Mass at a parish in Elizabethtown.

••••

The lawsuit provides the first graphic details of Gillespie’s alleged abusive behavior in Charlotte. The complaint was filed under a closing window of a North Carolina law that allows victims of sexual assault of any age to sue their abusers.

J.C. said he began school at Our Lady of Assumption as a 6-year-old in 1994. Two years later, during the 1996-97 school year, his relationship with Gillespie began to grow.

The priest offered the boy a chance to be an “assistant altar server” — and the luxury of leaving class early to help Gillespie during the weekly Thursday morning Mass for students. The boy’s responsibilities grew, as did his sense that Father Fran considered him special, that he was not only his pastor but his friend, the lawsuit claims.

Once the assaults began, they occurred regularly. Every two weeks or so, the student would leave class and walk to the sacristy. The abuse continued until J.C. finished elementary school at Assumption and started classes at Holy Trinity Middle School for the 1999-2000 school year.

A quarter of a century later, J.C. still suffers “severe physical and emotional damages,” according to the lawsuit — from depression and anxiety to mood swings, shame and substance abuse.

••••

The Charlotte Diocese serves some 400,000 Catholics in 46 North Carolina counties.

In their statement, Catholic leaders said the diocese “has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse and we encourage anyone who has been the victim of abuse to seek help and report to authorities. We also pray for peace and healing for abuse victims and their families and communities.”

In December 2019, the diocese released a list of 14 clergy members who had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse in western North Carolina since the diocese formed in 1972. All had been removed from the ministry or had died before the allegations arose.

Catholic leaders in Charlotte also released the names of 23 clergy members who had served in the diocese and had been accused of misconduct elsewhere. Another six worked in western North Carolina before the diocese was created.

In December 2019, Jugis removed the Rev. Patrick Hoare, pastor of the massive St. Matthew Catholic Church in south Charlotte, after decades-old allegations of sexual abuse of a minor arose against him in Pennsylvania.

In a lawsuit filed last year, a California man said he was sexually abused by Robert Yurgel, a defrocked priest who served almost eight years in prison for assaulting another child at St. Matthew.

Meanwhile, the local investigation into the allegations against Gillespie is over. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say the probe has been classified as “Exceptionally Cleared — Victim Chose not to Prosecute.”

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