Popular Priest Facing Civil Trial in Molestation Suit

By Scott Smith
The Record
April 17, 2011

Michael Kelly sings for the Stockton Rotary Club in 2006.

STOCKTON - A popular Catholic priest in Lockeford, who returned to work after a church investigation found no evidence of child molestation, could face a civil trial this summer, nearly three decades after he is accused of assaulting a Stockton boy.

The allegations against the Rev. Michael Kelly, 61, first surfaced in 2006 when a man identified only as John TZ Doe, said that well into adulthood, long-repressed memories of abuse he suffered as a boy flooded back into consciousness.

Now 36 and a career military man, the plaintiff said in court documents that when he was between the ages of 7 and 11, Kelly kissed, caressed and walked nude in front of him on repeated occasions, according to the lawsuit filed at San Joaquin County Superior Court.

Ultimately, the priest sodomized him, the lawsuit says.

Kelly maintains his innocence, and in a March 2009 deposition said he couldn't understand why the man would make up such things about him.

"I have no idea," Kelly told attorneys. "All I know, it is absolutely, totally, and completely untrue from start to finish."

The allegations yet again put the Catholic Diocese of Stockton on the defensive against charges that it has failed to protect children from predatorial priests under a so-called conspiracy of silence, according to the lawsuit.

The most notable case involved the Rev. Oliver O'Grady, who went to prison and cost the church millions of dollars in legal settlements. He served at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Lodi, Church of the Presentation in Stockton and other churches in the diocese.

The defrocked O'Grady was arrested again last year in his native Ireland and charged with having thousands of images of child pornography on his laptop computer. He is out of jail after posting bail.

Also born in Ireland, Kelly was ordained in 1973, the year he moved to Stockton. He served at Cathedral of Annunciation at the time of the alleged abuse.

Kelly remains popular among parishioners for his brief yet poignant sermons. He is also politically well-connected. Two Stockton judges - Michael Coughlan and Barbara Kronlund - declined to oversee Kelly's case because they know him.

Kelly has served as pastor of St. Joaquim's parish in Lockeford since 2004. The Diocese put him on leave for six months after the current lawsuit was filed in 2007.

Bishop Stephen Blaire reinstated Kelly in March 28, saying in a statement that an internal investigation turned up no evidence of abuse. Attorneys for the alleged victim refused to let the man be interviewed by church investigators, which Blaire said further complicated their efforts.

Furthermore, Blaire said he received a deluge of letters from Kelly's supporters.

Yet, the civil lawsuit - based on allegations of child molestation - moves forward.

In a recent hearing, attorneys for the diocese argued before San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge David Warner that the church and its business entities should be dropped from the lawsuit.

The church's attorneys argued that the diocese had no reason to believe that Kelly was a threat to children. It should not be held responsible for Kelly's alleged abuse, the attorneys say.

Attorneys for the plaintiff, however, claim to know of two other children Kelly molested. The plaintiff's attorneys contend that should have put the church on notice.

Judge Warner's decision on the motion to dismiss the diocese from the case is expected any day. Kelly, who has never been criminally charged, could face a jury in the civil lawsuit as early as July.

Attorneys for the plaintiff seek an unspecified amount of money for his suffering.

Contact reporter Scott Smith at (209) 546-8296 or

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