A WEST CORK priest has lost his appeal against a four-year jail sentence imposed on him for hiring the Continuity IRA to issue death threats and intimidate his nephew into dropping a legal action against him.
Fr Francis Kelleher (60) pleaded guilty to four counts of coercion in relation to the threats made against his nephew, Niall Kelleher (43) on a number of dates in 2012 and 2013.
Fr Kelleher, a native of Cloughduv but now resident in Cork city, pleaded guilty in April 2015 to intimidating his nephew over a solicitor’s letter which the nephew had sent him.
Judge Sean Ó Donnabhain imposed a four year sentence on the cleric at Cork Circuit Criminal Court after hearing how he had contacted a Continuity IRA representative to intimidate his nephew.
Det Garda Micheal O’Regan had told the original hearing at Cork Circuit Criminal Court that Mr Kelleher had sent a solicitor’s letter to his uncle with regard to a civil matter on May 24th, 2012. However, on June 27th 2012, three men called to Mr Kelleher’s house and met with his 13-year-old son and then they called to where he was working in Innishannon and threatened him.
‘They said to Mr Kelleher, “We’re from the Continuity IRA – withdraw the statement against the priest and drop the case or you won’t see the following week”,’ said Det Garda O’Regan.
Nine days later, on July 6th 2012, Mr Kelleher received a phone call when a man told him to ‘Drop the case and stop making up lies about Francis, it’s all about money, drop the case or die’.
Two days later, on July 8th, Mr Kelleher received two more phone calls – the first telling him ‘It’s your last chance’ and a second call telling him ‘You blew it’.
The threats stopped for a period, but on January 8th 2013, Mr Kelleher received another threatening call at home, urging him to withdraw the statement he had given his solicitor.
‘You’re a nice guy, Niall, but I’ve been paid a lot of money to take care of you in relation to your statement,’ said the caller to Mr Kelleher, who was deeply disturbed by the threats.
Mr Kelleher had contacted the gardaí and upped his personal security at his house as he took the threats to himself and his family very seriously and gardaí put a watch on his home.
Gardaí regularly carried out patrols in the vicinity of Mr Kelleher’s home as they began an investigation into the threats which they quickly traced to Fr Kelleher, the court heard.
Det Garda O’Regan said gardaí arrested Fr Kelleher on November 25th 2013 and he admitted to them that he had paid €4,000 to someone to have his nephew threatened.
Imposing the four-year term on Fr Kelleher, who is now out of ministry, Judge Ó Donnabhain said his behaviour was appalling and the fact that he professed to be a priest at the time made it even worse.
But Fr Kelleher appealed the severity of sentence to the Court of Criminal Appeal this week and the three judge court upheld the four-year jail term imposed by Judge Ó Donnabhain last year.
Dismissing Fr Kelleher’s appeal, Mr Justice Alan Mahon said an attempt to stop an individual from pursuing legal proceedings was a very serious matter, even where the threats may be mild.
The fact that he hired a gang who purported to be the Continuity IRA for the purpose of instilling in his victim the maximum amount of fear made the offence ‘particularly reprehensible’.
Fr Kelleher’s nephew absolutely believed that he and his family were in serious danger from the threats, said Mr Justice Mahon, adding the threats were particularly nasty.
The threats were so realistic that Fr Kelleher’s nephew felt the need to check under his car before going to work every day, and he was wary of any strange cars around his neighbourhood, he said.
Defence counsel, Tom Creed SC, said his client was effectively ‘a broken man’, having being removed for his post as hospital chaplain and having lost the house provided by his diocese.
Mr Creed submitted that Judge Ó Donnabhain should have suspended a portion of his client’s sentence when dealing with the case at Cork Circuit Criminal Court in 2015.
But Mr Justice Mahon said that while the four year sentence may have been at the upper end of the scale, it was within Judge O’Donnabhain’s discretion having regard to the number of offences and their nature.
Mr Justice Mahon, who sat with Mr Justice George Birmingham and Mr Justice Paul Butler, said they had found no error in principle by Judge O Donnabhain and they dismissed Fr Kelleher’s appeal.