Priest jailed for hiring IRA for threats

A priest was jailed for four years yesterday for enlisting the help of members of the Continuity IRA to threaten his nephew not to pursue a complaint made in a solicitor’s letter.

Francis Kelleher, aged 59, who worked as a chaplain at Cork’s Mercy University Hospital and who is originally from Crookstown, Co Cork, confessed to four counts of coercion, a crime Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin said he had never encountered in court before yesterday.

“This is a profoundly upsetting kind of case,” said Judge Ó Donnabháin. “It goes to the foundations of justice — a witness to a case, civil or criminal, could be coerced so that he would not go forward with a legitimate complaint. That is appalling behaviour from a person then a professed minister.

“I have to take a stand against fellas who are going to get cowards going around the streets threatening people.”

Detective Garda Micheal O’Regan said the priest got Continuity IRA members to make threats against his nephew, after the letter of complaint was sent to the priest in May 2012.

The Bishop of Cork and Ross John Buckley issued a statement after the court hearing, saying: “It is deeply regrettable that such an offence could have been committed by anyone, and particularly by a priest.

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

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On June 27, 2012, three men called to where Niall Kelleher was working at Innishannon, Co Cork, and told him: “Withdraw the statement against Francis, we are from the Continuity IRA. Withdraw the statement against the priest or you will not see next week.”

The next threat came on July 6 with a phonecall saying: “Drop the case and stop making lies against Francis.”

On July 8, there was another phonecall, in which he was told: “You blew it.”

The final call was on January 8, 2013, and he was told: “Niall, you are a nice guy but I have been paid a lot of money to take care of you.”

Gardaí investigating the case have placed special security arrangements around Mr Kelleher’s home. Det O’Regan said yesterday: “There is ongoing protection.”

The priest admitted to gardaí he would be told each time a threat was made.

Judge Ó Donnabháin said: “He has gone through the experience of being extremely worried about his family. He was checking around himself, checking under his car, checking for foreign objects, wondering if there were strange cars on the road... He had to put a level of security on his home which was unbelievable because of threats made by a cowardly group called the Continuities, which he had never heard of before except on television.”

The victim said his uncle put him and his family through this torment “all because of a letter”.

Kelleher first told investigating gardaí he paid €4,000, then said it was €6,000 for threats to be made.

He said yesterday: “I want to publicly apologise. I never meant for it to happen like this. I apologise to Niall now, here on this witness stand.”

Tom Creed, defending, said the accused had been permanently suspended from the priesthood. He said he had told a man he knew about the solicitor’s letter, and the man told him he could get the Continuity IRA to sort it out. Mr Creed said once the process started, it became a rollercoaster Kelleher was unable to stop.

Judge Ó Donnabháin said: “I put this case at the highest level of seriousness for cases of this type. I can believe every word of the victim impact statement. For any young man trying to keep down a job and carry on with a family to be subjected to this kind of behaviour is wrong.”

There was no evidence given in relation to the contents of the solicitor’s letter.

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