The Death of an Outspoken Victim of Abuse

By Ronald Smothers
New York Times
October 14, 2003

Morristown, N.J., man who was instrumental in organizing New Jersey residents who had been abused by priests apparently committed suicide Sunday by walking in front of an eastbound New Jersey Transit commuter train.

The man, James Thomas Kelly, 37, was killed when a Hoboken-bound train from Dover struck him in the predawn darkness at 5:17 a.m.

Penny Bassett Hackett, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Transit, said the train's engineer recounted seeing a man stepping onto the tracks as the train was about an eighth of a mile from the Morristown station. Mr. Kelly's car was found in the parking lot of the station, she said.

The news of Mr. Kelly's death stung those active with the New York and New Jersey chapters of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Mr. Kelly, a Mendham native, helped found the New Jersey chapter and was an active speaker with the New York unit.

There was no note left, and family and friends of Mr. Kelly said that they did not know why he might have killed himself. They cautioned against linking the suicide directly to the abuse by a priest that he and some of his brothers had suffered as children.

In April 2002, amid the flurry of revelations about the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, Mr. Kelly publicly acknowledged that he had been sexually abused by his parish priest, the Rev. James T. Hanley, then of St. Joseph's in Mendham.

Mark Serrano, a regional director of the abuse survivor's network and a victim of Father Hanley as well, said that Mr. Kelly, like so many abuse victims, had not shared what had happened to him until then.

Allegations against Father Hanley first surfaced in the 1990's and were quietly investigated by the Morris County prosecutor, who later concluded that the statute of limitations had tolled on most of the instances of abuse that dated back to the 70's and 80's. In 1995, a maverick priest in the parish went public with the allegations, many of which were the subject of confidentiality agreements arising from court settlements with victims of abuse by the priest. Father Hanley was removed as a priest but was never charged.

"We have gone through life in such darkness and shame and silence," Mr. Serrano said of abuse victims in general, and Mr. Kelly in particular. "But through speaking to others, Jim was able to turn the abuse around. His death was a great tragedy that we may never be able to understand."

Those who heard Mr. Kelly speak said he often opened by movingly recalling the murder in 2002 of a former girlfriend who was stabbed while fighting off a would-be rapist. Tearfully, he would pay tribute to the woman's resistance to becoming a victim. Then he would note that children like himself and others who had been abused by trusted religious figures did not have the power to fight back.

It was a story that he told at the inaugural gathering of the northern New Jersey chapter of Voices of the Faithful, which drew more than 150 people to a catering hall in August 2002. Theresa Padovano, a former nun who helped start the 30,000-member lay group, which emerged as a national response to the abuse revelations, said the audience was visibly moved by his speech and accounts of abuse at the hands of Father Hanley.

News of Mr. Kelly's death spread quickly by e-mail yesterday, she said, noting that she found several messages about his death when she awoke.

"He was a very decent, innocent man who had been grossly abused," she said. "I feel sick at heart."

Recently, according to friends, Mr. Kelly was volunteering and making himself available for more and more speaking opportunities. David Cerulli, a board member of the New York chapter of the survivors group who ran their speakers bureau, said people were always moved by his honesty. "Jim was my go-to guy whenever I needed somebody," he said. "He was always available to break the silence."

A graduate of Rowan University in Glassboro and a salesman with Nextel, Mr. Kelly was described as a talkative and gregarious man who seemed to enjoy the bonhomie of sales work.

The Rev. Kenneth Lasch, the current parish priest at St. Joseph's and an outspoken advocate for the survivors of abuse by priests, said that in spite of Father Hanley's sexual abuse, "there was no crisis of faith" for Mr. Kelly.

"He didn't seem alienated," Father Lasch said. "He had sought professional help outside of the support group, but we all know that midlife is a tough time. We also know that life is a matrix, and we don't know what triggered this death."

Father Lasch will officiate at a funeral Mass for Mr. Kelly tomorrow at noon at St. Joseph's in Mendham.


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