Priest Finding Support

By Jennie Rodriguez-Moore
The Record
April 10, 2012

Father Michael Kelly

STOCKTON - There's a wave of support for former Catholic priest Michael Kelly even after a civil jury found him liable for sexually molesting an altar boy more than 20 years ago.

Friday's verdict disheartened a slew of parishioners from St. Joachim Church in Locke-ford and other supporters even while advocates of the plaintiff rejoiced.

They said civil justice would have to suffice, since criminal charges couldn't be filed because of the statute of limitations.

The Diocese of Stockton removed Kelly from ministry Friday immediately after the verdict at San Joaquin County Superior Court.

"All the parishioners, everybody who knows Father Kelly, are devastated," said Christine Brandstad, a Linden resident who attends St. Joachim, where Kelly was pastor. "He is the most beloved priest we've ever known."

An emotional crowd gathered at the Lockeford church Friday to hear Kelly speak and reiterate that he has been falsely accused.

Kelly's removal is spurring a committee of followers to continue finding ways to support him, and they hope he can still be exonerated. Brandstad plans to attend meetings.

"I don't feel the jurors ever got a true feel of who Father Kelly is," said Brandstad, 55. "Child sexual molestation is the most heinous crime in this Earth, but this man, this priest, is not capable of it."

Identified in court papers as John TZ Doe, the plaintiff is a 37-year-old former altar boy at Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton, where Kelly served during the 1980s.

Doe said he recovered memories he had repressed since childhood of Kelly molesting him in a home, a motel and a rectory. He also said the priest raped him in a wooded area when the boy thought they were only going on a hike.

Thomas Beatty, one of the defense attorneys on the case, said he and Kelly are discussing whether to appeal the decision.

"Everything he knows and loved has been stripped from him," Beatty said.

Beatty believes the outcome might have been different if the results of a polygraph test would have been admitted into the trial. Kelly passed the test commissioned by the diocese, Beatty said.

The defense described Kelly as a playful young priest who roughhoused and tickled children during his early years. But they said he never sexually touched children.

"In my opinion, he used the kids to get to us," said Doug Bennet, a 63-year-old Stockton resident who met Kelly at Annunciation.

"He would play with the kids for a few minutes, get them all fired up, then he would come to talk to the family."

Bennet sent an email to The Record to express his dissatisfaction with the verdict.

Jean Walker Lowell, who came from Modesto to observe the trial for weeks, said she has known Kelly for more than 40 years and trusted him with her own children.

"I'm totally devastated is what I am," said Walker, 78. "It's very emotional for me.

"My son was an altar boy for him. He was one of his soccer players. My son died and (Kelly) says Mass every year for him."

At least seven letters were submitted to The Record's Opinion section in support of Kelly.

One letter writer, Denise Drewry of Manteca, said her son was an altar boy at St. Bernard's Church in Tracy when Kelly served there in the late 1970s. She said her children loved Kelly.

"(Father) Kelly is an exemplary priest who has now lost his position and his reputation," Drewry said in her letter. "Unfortunately, it is all of us who have really lost."

The plaintiff's attorney, Newport Beach-based John Manly, said he isn't surprised by the reactions.

"Pedophiles are nice people. That's how they get access to kids," Manly said. "Oliver O'Grady still is one of the most charming people you will ever meet. But he's a monster."

O'Grady, who was convicted in San Joaquin County of sexually molesting children, was defrocked by the church over the criminal charges.

Manly said the polygraph test does not prove Kelly's innocence.

"People who are sociopathic pass polygraph tests," he said. "If polygraph were the standard for determining truth, we wouldn't have trials."

Manly said there's more evidence about Kelly's conduct to come in the second phase of the trial.

"If people saw his file and knew what was in it, there would be a different viewpoint," Manly said.

During the first phase of the trial, a seven-week segment, the courtroom was full of Kelly's advocates.

One of the parishioners was barred from the trial after approaching a juror and attempting to persuade that person.

Amid the audience were a few supporters for the plaintiff.

Tim Lennon, a San Francisco representative of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, felt his presence among the audience provided a little balance. He primarily wanted to show the plaintiff support.

"I was raped and abused when I was 13," Lennon said. "To me, that was a traumatic, overwhelming, devastating and crippling event.

"When I look at that young man and understand he was raped and abused when he was 10, it is beyond belief that a crime can be committed against that child."

Lennon said during the past weeks, he heard parishioners in the audience make comments in a quiet voice about the plaintiff.

"My view is that in general, people that tell stories of abuse need to be believed," Lennon said.

The second phase of the trial will continue Wednesday and will focus on the diocese's handling of Kelly and whether Bishop Stephen Blaire and Monsignor Richard J. Ryan are also liable for damages.



Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.