Former Tracy Priest Loses Civil Trial

By Maggie Creamer and Lauren Nelson
Tracy Press
April 9, 2012

Three hours after hearing the verdict in his civil trial, a teary-eyed, choked up Michael Kelly faced an emotional congregation.

Earlier that afternoon, the onetime priest at St. Bernardís Catholic Church was held liable on three counts of assault, sexual assault and abuse. He has been removed as a priest, stripping him of the ability to lead his congregation just before Easter.

"Practically speaking for now, and several years to come, I cannot be your pastor anymore," he said as his voice cracked Friday, April 6. "It breaks my heart, but I can't. That is the way it is written. As much as I love all of you, I have to obey what the rules are."

Yet he maintained that he is innocent, and reaffirmed his plans to keep fighting.

"I am disappointed in the verdict," he said. "The charges against me are not true ó they didn't happen. These allegations aren't true."

More than 100 parishioners gathered at St. Joachim Catholic Church in Lockeford, where Kelly has served as priest since 2004. The churchgoers hugged one another, clutching tissues and listening to Kelly's every word through bloodshot eyes.

Members of the congregation have supported Kelly, showing up in court continuously through the more than month-long trial. A 37-year-old former altar boy accused the Lockeford priest of sexually assaulting him.

Kelly told the congregation not to blame Bishop Stephen Blaire for his removal because the church leader had no other choice. He said that according to the Church's Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, passed in 2003, church leaders are required to automatically remove a priest convicted in civil or criminal court for sexual crimes against a minor.

"The bishop fully believes (that I'm innocent). He has no reservations, he has made that clear. This verdict doesn't change that," Kelly said.

Throughout the speech, Kelly said multiple times he is innocent. The crowd cheered when he said he passed two polygraph tests that were not allowed in court.

Kelly was cleared by an internal church investigation of any wrongdoing in 2008.

Kelly told his parishioners that he's not sure what will happen, but he will continue to attend church functions unless the new priest says otherwise.

"I said to you two months ago before this started, win or lose, my task on Earth and your task on Earth is to give glory to God. That is our God. I would much rather be giving glory to God by celebrating the Eucharist here every day, but that's not God's will right now," he said.

Members of his congregation said they were shocked when they found out about the verdict.

Courtney Schmidt, 19, was in the courtroom Friday and had to leave once she heard the verdict. She served for three years as an altar server and the last four years as a Eucharistic minister.

"I believe that the allegations are incredibly false. I know from the depths of my heart he did not do this," she said.

Bob Gotelli has known Kelly for 39 years and has had two of his family members baptized at St. Joachim. He said he has always recommended people come at least once to the church to see Kelly preach.

He also could not believe the verdict.

"I want to make sure we take the right steps to make justice prevail. It did not prevail today," he said.

Tim Heystee has been a member of the parish since 1988. He was devastated when the news spread through his Bible study group Friday afternoon. Kelly has not only been his pastor, but a friend who he's had over for dinner and who even officiated his daughter's wedding. Though shocked, he doesn't believe the allegations.

"We know he is innocent," he said.

Standing in front of the congregation, he thanked Kelly for the foundation he's provided the church and the qualities he's helped bring out of the churchgoers.

"I've seen a lot of priests, and none are as charismatic as you are," Heystee said. "You are the best priest we've ever had here."

Toward the end, Kelly asked if anyone had any questions, and churchgoers asked what to do next. Parishioner Brigid Jenkins said she feels that they need to take their concerns before God and pray.

"Stand up by prayers to the heavenly Father," she said. "We have a martyr here. We are blessed to see a martyr in our midst," she said.

Now that Kelly will no longer be priest, Schmidt said the church will be different. She started going to St. Joachim when she was 12 years old because her family heard great recommendations about Kelly.

"I'll definitely continue going to church, but it will not feel like home without Father Kelly," she said.

Kelly mentioned that in less than 24 hours, he normally would have repeated the same story he tells the parishioners every Easter. He said that every year, he asks the congregation to look at Jesus' arms outstretched on the cross and how they cannot stretch any further.

"If you can do one thing for me. Never, ever forget that you all belong in those arms. No matter what rules are put in front of you and what church leaders try to tell you, no rule transcends God's arms," he said.








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