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  Tale of Two Priests; Eastside Legend Charged with Sex Abuse

Santa Barbara Independent
December 25, 2003

ABSTRACT

In recent weeks, though, two Santa Barbara men have presented a conflicting and disturbing account of the man so many members of his parish felt they knew and loved. If Kelly was the best of priests, the two have charged, he was also the worst of priests. These men, now 59 and 48, contend that Father [Matthew Kelly] took of them up to his Santa Ynez cabin as young teens and sexually molested them there. The younger of the two--Andrew Ruiz--sued the Los Angeles Archdiocese in Santa Barbara court on November 25, naming Kelly as his abuser. Kelly's second accuser--who insists on anonymity--came forward after hearing of Ruiz's lawsuit to offer support. "I didn't want the church making [Ruiz] out to be some loony tune," he explained. "I can attest to what he said because it happened to me." Since then, he too has decided to sue the archdiocese, and on Tuesday, his attorneys, R. Thomas Griffith and Tim Hale filed a motion with Judge Clifford Anderson, seeking permission to file the case anonymously. "I am too embarrassed and ashamed," he explained. (If the request is granted, the archdiocese would be given the man's identity, but the public would not, unless and until the matter goes to trial.)

Because Matthew Kelly died last year, nearly blind, in a Los Angeles retirement home for aging priests, he is unavailable to either defend his name or ask forgiveness for his sins. Many who knew and admired the man have reacted to the charges with shock, sadness, and anger. In light of the massive sexual abuse scandal now shaking the moral foundations of the American Catholic Church, even Kelly's staunchest defenders acknowledge that anything is possible. But they simply can't believe the charges. "It just doesn't seem real to me," said Tony Blanco, former altar boy--now a captain with the Santa Barbara Fire Department. "He was always taking kids up to his cabin. He took my brother on trips to San Diego. In all these years, nobody has ever said anything weird ever happened. And now this. Don't you think that's weird?" Blanco speculated the allegations are part of an effort to cash in on the blitzkrieg of litigation now targeting the church. But he also said, "I don't want to believe it and I'm coloring the story that way."

It's unlikely that the case of Father Matthew Kelly will ever see the inside of a courtroom. Hennigan estimated that when the extended statute of limitations for such cases expires December 31, more than 400 sexual abuse lawsuits will have been filed against the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Those will be disposed of by a court-supervised mediation effort--staggering in its size and scope--in which all complaints are resolved en masse. Hennigan said his client is eager to settle. "The protraction of these proceedings is damaging to the church, obviously," he said. "And damaging to the victims, as well, exacerbating their suffering." The money involved, Hennigan added, might motivate some people to file fraudulent claims. The $85 million settlement just agreed to by the Boston Archdiocese, Hennigan noted, translates to $150,000 per claimant. "And the demands we've received are for substantially more than that," he added. As to the specific claims made against Fr. Kelly, Hennigan said only, "If they're false, it's a shame to smear the name of a man who's done so much good. But if they're true, then we grieve for the victims."

FULL TEXT

For decades, the name Father Matthew Kelly has elicited a ferocious reverence among many of the large extended families of Santa Barbara's Eastside. During a reign of service that spanned from the 1940s to the 1970s--though not continuously--Kelly administered the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. With a stern passion and uncommon ability, he ministered to the spiritual and educational needs of an impoverished and marginalized Hispanic community. Born with striking blue eyes and Hollywood good looks, Kelly performed the standard priestly functions--he gave mass, buried the dead, married the young, baptized their children, and forgave their sins. Tall, commanding, and more than a little intimidating, Kelly also oversaw the parish elementary school--closed now since the early '80s. Miraculously, he managed to eliminate a staggering $200,000 debt accumulated over 20 years almost overnight. And just as miraculously, he successfully raised the funds necessary to renovate the dilapidated wooden schoolrooms.

Kelly soon established himself as the guardian angel of the Eastside. He had a knack for knowing which of his parishioners were down on their luck--and there were always many--and an even greater knack for securing them money and jobs. He quietly made sure the Council of Christmas Cheer knew which families were too poor to buy presents for their children. And just as quietly, he dispensed countless unsolicited scholarships to families who could not afford Our Lady of Guadalupe's tuition. He also arranged countless scholarships for his graduates to attend at least one year at Bishop Diego High School (and its predecessor the Santa Barbara Catholic High School).

Almost from the day he moved to Santa Barbara in 1943, Kelly demonstrated a keen interest in at-risk youth--or juvenile delinquents, in those days. In the late '50s and early '60s, the tall priest could be seen cruising the streets of the Eastside in his white, four-door Chevy Impala, slouched low, smoking cigarettes with the young "pachucos." Kelly hustled to keep them out of trouble and away from heroin, even then a neighborhood scourge. Sometimes they listened. But even when they didn't, they trusted the priest--as did the city cops and the county probation officers who dealt with juvenile offenders. Kelly organized special sports leagues for kids, enlisting young men recently back from Korea to volunteer as coaches and counselors. And Kelly himself took many teens--individually and in groups--on trips to San Francisco and San Diego, and on retreats to his cabin in the Santa Ynez Mountains off Paradise Road. So successful were Kelly's efforts--according to a brochure published by the Catholic Church, he was said to have "cleared the parish and the whole city of juvenile problems."

In recent weeks, though, two Santa Barbara men have presented a conflicting and disturbing account of the man so many members of his parish felt they knew and loved. If Kelly was the best of priests, the two have charged, he was also the worst of priests. These men, now 59 and 48, contend that Father Matthew Kelly took of them up to his Santa Ynez cabin as young teens and sexually molested them there. The younger of the two--Andrew Ruiz--sued the Los Angeles Archdiocese in Santa Barbara court on November 25, naming Kelly as his abuser. Kelly's second accuser--who insists on anonymity--came forward after hearing of Ruiz's lawsuit to offer support. "I didn't want the church making [Ruiz] out to be some loony tune," he explained. "I can attest to what he said because it happened to me." Since then, he too has decided to sue the archdiocese, and on Tuesday, his attorneys, R. Thomas Griffith and Tim Hale filed a motion with Judge Clifford Anderson, seeking permission to file the case anonymously. "I am too embarrassed and ashamed," he explained. (If the request is granted, the archdiocese would be given the man's identity, but the public would not, unless and until the matter goes to trial.)

Because Matthew Kelly died last year, nearly blind, in a Los Angeles retirement home for aging priests, he is unavailable to either defend his name or ask forgiveness for his sins. Many who knew and admired the man have reacted to the charges with shock, sadness, and anger. In light of the massive sexual abuse scandal now shaking the moral foundations of the American Catholic Church, even Kelly's staunchest defenders acknowledge that anything is possible. But they simply can't believe the charges. "It just doesn't seem real to me," said Tony Blanco, former altar boy--now a captain with the Santa Barbara Fire Department. "He was always taking kids up to his cabin. He took my brother on trips to San Diego. In all these years, nobody has ever said anything weird ever happened. And now this. Don't you think that's weird?" Blanco speculated the allegations are part of an effort to cash in on the blitzkrieg of litigation now targeting the church. But he also said, "I don't want to believe it and I'm coloring the story that way."

Lawyers representing Kelly's accusers acknowledge the beloved parish priest did many great things. But they insist the similarities between the two men's tales indicate Fr. Kelly was also a sophisticated sexual predator with a polished modus operandi for targeting vulnerable victims and "grooming" them for abuse.

In the Mirror

Andrew Ruiz, now an electrician, said he first met Kelly in 1967, when he was a 12-year-old kid hanging out with some older boys from Our Lady of Guadalupe, trying hard to fit in. Ruiz said Kelly invited him and his friends to listen to music on his hi-fi in the rectory. "He liked Cream and other old psychedelic stuff," Ruiz said. Soon, Kelly asked Ruiz to come along with other kids on trips to his cabin, which had a downstairs weightroom accessed by a hidden trapdoor. Ruiz said he enjoyed these trips because he could do whatever he liked. And among these things that Ruiz said he especially came to like--thanks to Kelly--was beer.

Ruiz never knew his father and was raised by his mother and grandfather in a traditional Catholic household. When Kelly began inviting Ruiz up to the cabin alone, Ruiz said his mother expressed concern, but his grandfather said the priest could be trusted. According to Ruiz, he and Kelly always stopped at Vons by Highway 154 to buy groceries and beer. Once at the cabin, Ruiz said, he drank beers in one room, while Kelly slammed shots of whiskey in the kitchen. From there, they went into the bedroom. Ruiz declined to discuss the details, saying, "There was no penetration, but it's still a scary thing for a kid. Afterwards I'm wondering, is this okay? Is it normal? Is it wrong?"

When Kelly dropped him off at home, Ruiz said the priest always handed him an envelope containing 20 one-dollar bills. (Ruiz speculates now that Kelly got the money from the collection donations. "Where else is he going to get so many one-dollar bills?") Ruiz said he didn't tell anyone about the money, which he often used to quench his newfound taste for beer.

Ruiz said he started skipping school, smoking pot, and getting into trouble with the cops. "Things accelerated really fast," he recounted, and by eighth grade Ruiz was shooting heroin and embarking on what would become a 26-year journey of addiction, theft, and incarceration. Ruiz was behind bars when Kelly was transferred in 1971 and the two never saw each other again. Between then and now, Ruiz has been married twice and fathered two daughters. Ten years ago, as part of his effort to get clean and sober, Ruiz disclosed to another person the details of his experiences with Kelly for the first time.

Ruiz said he came forward when he read that the legislature had extended the statute of limitations for such cases one year. The deadline for new filings is the last day of December. "I don't know what effect this has had on me, but I want the church to stand up and accept responsibility," he said. Ruiz acknowledged that some people might think he was out to make money at the expense of a popular priest. "They're entitled to their opinion," he said. "But I'm the one who has to get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror."

Disturbing Echoes

Kelly's second accuser, now 59, immigrated to Santa Barbara with his family from Mexico at age 11 in 1955 and attended Our Lady of Guadalupe School. He said he also got to know Kelly by listening to music with him and other boys in the priest's rectory. About this time, he said, Kelly began inviting him and two other boys on trips to the Santa Ynez cabin. And as they drove off, he said Kelly would take off his collar and say, "I'm no longer a priest. I'm Matt."

They always stopped along the way for groceries, which often included tequila and whiskey. During the day, the boys would play on the river and work. After dinner, they'd play cards or checkers. The booze was for Kelly, the second accuser said, though on occasion the boys had a taste. During one of these trips, the second accuser said his friends told him that Father Kelly did not like to sleep alone, and that it was his turn to keep the priest company. He reported he got into bed with Kelly and fell asleep. He woke up when he felt Kelly's hand rubbing up and down on his thigh, then moving to his crotch. He jumped out of bed, he said, and ran from the room.

Despite that incident, the second accuser said he continued to visit the cabin with Kelly and the other boys. And he said that Kelly typically paid him anywhere from $5 to $20, always in one-dollar bills, at the end of such visits. For a while, he said, there were no more incidents at the cabin. But then, he said, Kelly fondled him again, and after that day he never went back. He said he reported the incident to a family friend, and to an assistant at Our Lady of Guadalupe, but that nothing was ever done. "I was told I was probably exaggerating," he said.

When he read--almost 50 years later--how Ruiz had sued the Archdiocese over Kelly's abuse, the second accuser said he began shaking and crying. "You have no idea what impact that had," he said. He said he left a message on the bishop's answering machine saying he had been abused too, and later called Ruiz's attorney R. Thomas Griffith. "I need help, and I'm going to do everything to get it," he explained.

Say It Ain't So

Those seeking definitive proof of Fr. Kelly's guilt or innocence will likely be keenly disappointed. These are allegations of trangressions that occurred in secret more than 40 years ago. Evidence in such cases is often exceedingly indirect. Thus far, the attorneys representing the two men have unearthed no similar complaints against Kelly. "He died without a single blemish on his record," said attorney Michael Hennigan, representing the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

It's unlikely that the case of Father Matthew Kelly will ever see the inside of a courtroom. Hennigan estimated that when the extended statute of limitations for such cases expires December 31, more than 400 sexual abuse lawsuits will have been filed against the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Those will be disposed of by a court-supervised mediation effort--staggering in its size and scope--in which all complaints are resolved en masse. Hennigan said his client is eager to settle. "The protraction of these proceedings is damaging to the church, obviously," he said. "And damaging to the victims, as well, exacerbating their suffering." The money involved, Hennigan added, might motivate some people to file fraudulent claims. The $85 million settlement just agreed to by the Boston Archdiocese, Hennigan noted, translates to $150,000 per claimant. "And the demands we've received are for substantially more than that," he added. As to the specific claims made against Fr. Kelly, Hennigan said only, "If they're false, it's a shame to smear the name of a man who's done so much good. But if they're true, then we grieve for the victims."

 
 

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