" Painful and Difficult Process"
Stockton Bishop Reinstates Priest after Diocesan Review Board Finds No Evidence to Support Claim of Sexual Abuse

California Catholic Daily
March 17, 2008

Another priest once accused of sexual misconduct has been cleared of wrongdoing and reinstated to active ministry. The decision by Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton marks the second time in less than a month that a California bishop has exonerated and reinstated an accused priest. On Feb. 23, Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron made a similar finding regarding a priest of that diocese.

On Friday, March 14, Bishop Blaire released a statement to the press announcing his decision to reinstate Fr. Michael Kelly, pastor of St. Joaquim's parish in Lockeford since 2004. Fr. Kelly was accused in September 2007 of molesting a 10-year-old boy more than 20 years ago. The alleged wrongdoing supposedly occurred between 1984 and 1986 when Fr. Kelly was assigned to the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton.

"We investigated as thoroughly as possible under these circumstances," Bishop Blaire said in the statement. "A professional investigator was engaged by the Diocese. His investigation did not reveal any evidence of sexual abuse on the part of Father Kelly. After discussing the matter carefully with the Diocesan Review Board, I have made the decision to restore Father Kelly to active priestly ministry in the Diocese."

The bishop's statement noted that the allegation was made by a third party, not by the alleged victim, but that neither the alleged victim nor the third party would talk to diocesan investigators. "To date, we have never heard anything directly from the claimant," said the bishop's statement. "This made investigating the allegation very difficult and time-consuming. The third party who initially informed us of the claim also refused to speak further about the matter."

Bishop Blaire said he had "received hundreds of letters in support of Father Kelly" while the case was pending, but that "it was necessary that a thorough investigation be undertaken." The bishop described the investigation as a "painful and difficult process."

The diocese reported the allegations against Fr. Kelly to the police, but no police investigation was undertaken because neither the alleged victim nor the third party ever came forward to file a complaint, a Stockton Police Department spokesman said.

Fr. Kelly came to California from Ireland in 1973 and served at parishes in Stockton, Modesto and Sonora until he was assigned in 2004 to St. Joachim's in Lockeford.

Late last month, Bishop Vigneron of Oakland reinstated Fr. Chris Berbena to active ministry at St. John Vianney parish in Walnut Creek after the Diocesan Review Panel cleared the Franciscan priest. Fr. Berbena had been on a three-year leave of absence while the review board looked into allegations he had sexually molested a child in 1980. "Surely this was an excruciating length of time for Fr. Berbena who has steadfastly maintained his innocence while his good name and the fidelity of his priesthood have been questioned," Bishop Vigneron told parishioners in a special Feb. 23-24 statement. "As your bishop, I feel myself morally bound and committed to abide by the procedures we have instituted to ensure the safety of our children and I had to let the process run its course no matter how much time it took or the outcome it determined."


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