Predators of the Cloth
Episode with Deacon Leaves Youth Angry
By Evan Moore
September 29, 1992
CORPUS CHRISTI — Five years after he was branded a liar, Paul Kelly is still angry, still disillusioned and still tells the same story.
Kelly, now 20, says he was the object of an attempted seduction by a Catholic deacon, a man who was ordained a priest weeks after Kelly made his accusation. He says church hierarchy swore him and his mother to secrecy about the case, dismissed his statements, then, when he would not remain quiet, circulated rumors that he had apologized and recanted his accusations.
The strange case of Paul Kelly and the Rev. John Feminelli has since led to two lawsuits, one of which remains before the Texas Supreme Court. It has cast a cloud over the reputation of the priest, who denied the seduction attempt, and created a rift between several Catholic families and the Diocese of Corpus Christi.
Corpus Christi is easily 50 percent Catholic. It is one of the richest dioceses in the nation, with the oil and gas rights of the 400,000-acre Kenedy Ranch planted firmly under the control of Bishop Rene H. Gracida.
Gracida answers only to the pope. The ranch's mineral rights are estimated at $ 80 million and make him a man of power. He's also a colorful cleric. A World War II fighter pilot, his trademarks are a Stetson hat and a scepter made from a converted pool cue.
He is one of the nation's few bishops known to have excommunicated Catholics for favoring birth control. He has pushed for and almost succeeded in having the Corpus Christi City Charter include the addendum that "life begins at the moment of conception. "
He controls his own telecommunications center and television station and appears regularly on his own program, the Gulf Coast Catholic Hour. He has a hunting resort on the ranch, a mansion on Ocean Drive and a diocese that stretches from Corpus Christi south to Brownsville.
And, when he chose to ordain John Feminelli, he did so despite Kelly's accusation and against the advice of a Texas Department of Human Resources caseworker who had investigated the allegations unofficially.
The case dates to 1987, when Kelly, then 15, was a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, where Feminelli was a deacon. Kelly stood out among the youths in the church as a Catholic child whose parents were divorced and Feminelli paid particular attention to him. Feminelli, originally from New York, was preparing for the priesthood at the time and had asked Kelly to become an altar boy.
Over the next few months, Feminelli became a close companion of the youth. He began calling him at home, took him out to eat and bought him clothing. Kelly said the deacon gave him cash, usually in $ 25 increments, totaling around $ 225 over a period of weeks.
Feminelli bought the teen-ager a $ 45 denim jacket, a $ 135 guitar case and a $ 20 amplifier cord and paid $ 200 of the cost of a $ 300 guitar.
"He told me to keep it a secret," said Kelly.
And, periodically, said Kelly, the deacon wanted to wrestle.
"He was an older guy (43) and he said he'd known Bishop Gracida in Florida and that's why he'd come to Corpus Christi and he had this thing about wrestling," said Kelly.
"We were supposed to wrestle for $ 25, the best three out of five falls, but we never did it," said Kelly. "Then, he wanted me to go to San Antonio with him for the weekend and watch wrestling there and then we'd wrestle in the motel room. That's when I realized something was wrong. " Kelly declined the trip and later declined Feminelli's offer to purchase an amplifier for his guitar. The two argued so vehemently about the amplifier in the music store that the store owner intervened.
Kelly's mother, Gregoria Kelly, had become concerned over the relationship and, when she confronted her son, he told her he believed Feminelli wanted to have sex with him. Mrs. Kelly wrote a detailed letter to her pastor, the Rev.Thomas Feeney, Monsignor James Tamayo, chancellor of the diocese, and the Rev.Louis Kihneman, vocational director, complaining about Feminelli.
She also showed the letter to several other church members, including Dr. Larry Pirmantgen, Joseph Nilles and his son, Robert.
She also spoke with Texas Department of Human Services caseworker James O'Leary, a Catholic who investigated the case on his own.
Gracida appointed Feeney, Tamayo and Kihneman to a commission to investigate the Kellys' accusations and both Mrs. Kelly and her son were called in. Both were told to sign an "oath of secrecy" before being questioned and both signed, although the oath was not in keeping with canon law and not binding.
O'Leary made a report of his inquiry into the case and sent a copy to Gracida, saying "there is no credible explanation for the $ 300 guitar other than "the engagement phase' in pedophilia, with intentions of seduction, conscious or unconscious, compulsive or not.
"The risk of ordaining John Feminelli to the priesthood at this point is incredible. Right now, Mrs. Kelly and her son are being made to look the villain(s) and John Feminelli the victim.
The church must not let that injustice be the conclusion to this unhappy situation for all concerned. "
Feminelli would not talk to O'Leary, but he did not deny giving gifts to Kelly. He told the commission that he had befriended the boy and loaned him money, but had not actually given him cash. He denied asking Kelly to wrestle, or intending to seduce him.
The three priests decided Paul Kelly was not a credible witness and recommended that Feminelli be ordained. They added, however, that the deacon should receive "intense counseling with regards to his prudence and his ability to form adult relationships. "
They also told other priests and parishioners that Kelly had recanted his accusations and had written a letter of apology to the priest.
"I've never recanted any of it," Kelly said recently. The letter, he said, was written months before as an apology for leaving the school campus for lunch during a day of retreat.
Feminelli was ordained June 6, 1987, and Robert Nilles and his parents came to protest the ceremony. They were escorted out of the cathedral by plainclothes police.
Feminelli then sued the Nilleses, the Kellys and several others for slander, but dropped his suit two days before it was to come to trial. Paul Kelly, in turn, sued Gracida and the commission for slander for falsely branding him a liar. That suit ended in a directed verdict in favor of the diocese in January 1991 and was appealed.
The 13th Court of Appeals agreed that there was no slander, even though there was evidence Gracida and commission members told others that Kelly had recanted and written a letter of apology.
That ruling has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Gracida, in court testimony, said his main concern was whether any actual sexual contact between Feminelli and Kelly had occurred, although none was ever alleged. When it became clear that none had, he decided to hold the ordination. He agreed the oaths of silence signed by the Kellys were not proper or sanctioned by canon law, and said they were "a mistake. "
Feminelli has been assigned as a chaplain at a nursing home in Corpus Christi. Neither he nor Gracida would answer questions about the case.
The Nilleses have changed from Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the Pirmantgens no longer belong to any parish. The names of both families and of the Kellys were removed from the church rolls a few weeks after the lawsuits began.
Today, Gregoria Kelly is in her third parish since 1987. "At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, they think I lied," she said. "I went to another church, but there was a similar problem there. " Paul Kelly does not go to church. He plans to leave Corpus Christi next year to attend college in either Louisiana or Austin and says he may not return.
"The main thing that makes me angry is them calling me a liar," he said. "I've never recanted and I've never apologized. I told the truth about what happened.
"I'd like to see this thing resolved some day. I'd like to see it over with, but I'd also like to have it clear that I didn't lie. "
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