Following Bee investigation, AG Bonta will review DA dropping charges against priest

Sacramento Bee [Sacramento CA]

November 6, 2023

By Joe Rubin

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has agreed to investigate the decision by the Calaveras County District Attorney to drop charges against an indicted priest found liable for numerous sex crimes against children.

Bonta’s rare intervention comes on the heels of a Sacramento Bee investigation into the handling of the criminal case against Father Michael Kelly, who fled to his native Ireland, where he remains today.

The Bee investigation found that, despite pledging publicly to do everything in its power to extradite Kelly from Ireland, Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook took few, if any, steps to follow through with that commitment.

Kelly was indicted in 2014 for sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy, Trevor Martin. Kelly and the church had already been held liable in 2012 for sexual abuse in a civil case involving another boy. Kelly previously had served as a priest at Our Lady of Fatima in Modesto in the 1970s and also helped found the Modesto Youth Soccer Association.

In an email to The Bee, the Attorney General’s office said it was reviewing whether the DA’s decision to drop charges against Kelly in 2016 was an “abuse of discretion.” “Abuse of discretion” is a term of art in the legal profession that applies a standard of judgment as to whether any reasonable legal authority could come to the same conclusion.

Bonta’s decision to review the case is exceedingly rare, multiple legal experts said, and opens the possibility – which seemed like a moonshot months ago – that Bonta could refile charges, take over the case, and lead a high-profile effort to extradite Kelly. The Calaveras County District Attorney dropped the charges against Kelly after Trevor died in 2016 in a base jumping accident.

The Bee’s investigation revealed a number of troubling findings:

▪ Calaveras County appears to have taken few if any concrete steps to extradite Kelly. According to the Calaveras County district attorney’s office, FBI agents told the prosecutor that Ireland was “unwilling to extradite Kelly.” But it’s unclear if that was merely an opinion or if any actual extradition process was pursued.

▪ Calaveras County prosecutors dropped the charges against Kelly after Trevor’s death, a move legal experts found questionable. Legal experts also said that the constitutional rights of the Trevor’s mother were violated when they did not inform her she had a right to object in front of a judge prior to charges being dismissed.

▪ According to multiple legal experts, the district attorney also violated Trevor’s constitutional rights by failing to inform him that Kelly had been arrested in Morocco and imprisoned for months. Kelly ultimately returned to Ireland.

▪ The Calaveras County District Attorney initially acknowledged it had inexplicably lost the entire grand jury testimony, imperiling any future prosecution of Kelly. The office also admitted it had lost the actual indictment, which also contained valuable evidence. “After searching four file storage facilities and two buildings, we were unable to locate the paper file,” the district’s attorney’s office told The Bee. However, after the investigation was published online, the district attorney’s office said it had found the file.

[PHOTO: Father Michael Kelly stands with Trevor Martin, then about 10 years old, during the time Kelly sexually abused Trevor when he was an altar boy at St. Andrew Parish in Calaveras County. Courtesy Deanna Hampton]

 A week after the investigation was published, Trevor’s mother, Deanna Hampton, wrote Bonta, requesting that he investigate the DA’s conduct and take over the case.

“It wasn’t until my son died from a cliff-jumping accident that I would find out that the FBI had found Fr. Kelly in Morocco,” Hampton wrote, adding, “I learned at a meeting …that since my son had died, there was no longer a victim, and they would be releasing Fr. Kelly from the Moroccan jail. I begged them to extradite him to at least face the charges for fleeing during a criminal investigation, but they refused.”

She continued, “I am calling on you to at the very least look into the case and to let me know why the charges were dropped, why I was never informed of a hearing to drop the charges where I could oppose this action, or why the court documents were initially lost, then for some reason sealed. I would like for you to reopen the case and refile the charges against the priest. I believe that justice was denied to both my son and myself.”

The Calaveras County District Attorney did not respond to questions about Bonta’s decision to review the case. Rather, Michael Hatfield, a program analyst for the DA office, told The Bee that, “We proactively requested the Attorney General’s Office review this case file.”

The Attorney General’s office decision to investigate, however, appears to have been prompted by Trevor’s mother. In a letter to Hampton, the Attorney General’s office said, “In response to your request, we have agreed to review the District Attorney’s decision.”

Trevor Martin’s father, Michael Martin, from whom Hampton has been divorced since 2004, said he was “shaking with anger” after he read The Bee’s investigation. He said he has since had several conversations with the District Attorney’s office.

“I couldn’t understand how they could lose all those grand jury transcripts.” Martin was told that, after initially telling The Bee that the files couldn’t be located, they were ultimately discovered – but in poor condition.

“They found the documents and had to put them into a freeze-dryer,” Martin said. Hatfield did not respond to questions about the transcripts having to be freeze-dried.

“The Attorney General is doing the right thing,” Martin said. “What’s important now is that Kelly is brought back from Ireland, and has to face 12 jurors.”

 In the letter to Hampton, the Attorney General’s office did not address the condition of the documents.

“To facilitate this review, we have obtained all of the information the District Attorney had in reaching her conclusion. Because the volume of material received is significant and the review will take some time, we ask for your patience. Upon the completion of our review, we will let you know of our findings.”

Dan McNevin, a sex abuse survivor, and one of the leaders of the activist organization SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said the fact that the Attorney General’s office “is investigating the failure to prosecute Father Kelly is just huge and an opportunity for California to deal better with an issue where they have badly stumbled.

“What Trevor and his family went through is more common than people realize. Like many priests, Kelly got away with it. He is continuing to get away with it in Ireland.”

McNevin and other activists were initially buoyed in 2019 when then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra subpoenaed six dioceses across California for records related to abuse. McNevin said, given the thousands of victims in California, advocates hoped that the Attorney General’s office would publish the kind of comprehensive report that then Pennsylvania Attorney General, now Governor, Josh Shapiro (through a grand jury) published about Catholic sex abuse in that state in 2018.

“It just was the most purposeful thing, short of giving life to our four children, I’ve ever done in my life,” Shapiro told the New York Times in 2018.

But after that initial flurry of activity in 2019, interest in investigating the broad abuse within the Catholic Church from the Attorney General’s office seemed, to McNevin, “to go dark.”

“The revelations about Trevor Martin’s case,” McNevin said, “seem to have lit a fire at the attorney general’s office.”

Last week, McNevin said Bonta’s office contacted SNAP to set up a November meeting to discuss a trove of data and information the organization has been tabulating. Then came word of the review of Trevor Martin’s case. A likely focus of Bonta’s review will be whether Trevor’s and Hampton’s constitutional rights were violated under Marsy’s Law, a victim’s rights ballot proposition that was passed by voters in 2008.

Mariam El-menshawi, the Executive Director of the California Victim Legal Resources Center at the McGeorge School of Law, said he was “that Bonta will review the case.

“I definitely think that part of the review should include an assessment of whether victims’ rights were complied with in this case,” El-menshawi said. “I believe this is an opportune moment to reexamine the current state of enforcement of victims’ rights, and consider changes to protocols to ensure that victims’ rights are honored through the process.”

 Tim Steer, a former priest who served with the diocese of Oakland, and stepped back from active ministry in 2005 in protest over the complicity of Catholic dioceses across California, said that the decision by Bonta represents “a possible turning point in California for thousands of abuse victims.

“Trevor’s case is important because it represents so many dimensions of how sex abuse within the Catholic church has roiled California.”