Priest Returns to Ireland

By Jennie Rodriguez-Moore
The Record
April 17, 2012

Former San Joachim's Church Priest Michael Kelly walks April 13 into Department 42 of the county courthouse in downtown Stockton.

STOCKTON - Michael Kelly, the former Catholic priest found liable of sexual misconduct against a former altar boy, has left the United States for his native Ireland, according to the Diocese of Stockton.

In the midst of a civil trial in which the victim seeks damages, Kelly said in a letter to Bishop Stephen Blaire that the stress of the trial is causing health problems.

"By the time you read this letter I will be in Ireland with my family," Kelly said in the letter dated April 15 and received by the diocese Monday. "I am sorry for any difficulty this may cause the Diocese, but my health can't take it anymore."

A civil jury on April 6 unanimously found Kelly liable of actions related to sexual assault, and Kelly was scheduled to testify today in the phase of the trial that focuses the diocese's handling of Kelly.

The plaintiff had wanted Cardinal Roger Mahony to testify and is asking the court to find him in contempt for failing to show.

Mahony, the former bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, retired from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles about one year ago. He has been criticized for reassigning priests involved in child sex abuse scandals.

A scandal involving more than 500 plaintiffs resulted in a $660 million settlement. He has gone to Rome, according to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Mahony's successor, Blaire, removed Kelly from ministry following this jury's verdict. He said in a statement that he was stunned to receive the letter.

"I have tried to reach (Father) Kelly by email and by phone to implore him to return and see the trial through to its completion," Blaire wrote.

Since the verdict, Kelly wrote that he has had chronic bowel problems, is getting an average of one hour of sleep a night and is losing weight.

"I have sat back and listened to the vicious false allegations that have been spread about me for the past 4 1/2 years, and my health has suffered greatly because of it," Kelly said. "... I hope you will understand that right now I need to be with my family, whose support and love for me is unconditional."

John Manly, the Newport Beach attorney representing the victim, identified in court documents as John TZ Doe, believes Kelly's sudden departure is further evidence of his guilt.

"If anybody had any question about his guilt they ought to rethink it after this," Manly said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that he had to testify (today)."

Kelly was not charged criminally because the plaintiff recovered memories of the abuse after the statute of limitations, his attorneys have said.

"This was my client's chance to ask questions through his lawyer about what he did," Manly said. "Now ... we're not going to have that chance."

Thomas Beatty, Kelly's attorney, was just as surprised by Kelly's exodus.

"I'm still grappling to try to pull this together," he said.

Beatty said he's afraid people might misinterpret Kelly's leaving as a sign of guilt.

"I pray for his returned health," he said. "I believe in him, and so do his supporters."

Kelly remained popular with parishioners from his final posting at St. Joachim Church in Lockeford.

Many supporters showed up through the seven-week trial in support. Most stopped attending after the April 6 verdict at Kelly's request, Beatty said.

A member of St. Joachim's, Tom Bellato, said Kelly's move does not change his opinion.

"I think that's probably a good place for him to go. He has a family there," said Bellato, a 62-year-old resident of Lodi. "I know he didn't do what he is accused of doing."

Bellato said he has known Kelly for more than 30 years.

Joe Podrasky of Ripon said that he believes Kelly is innocent of molesting children.

"He had nothing here, and he's out in the open," said Podrasky, 82. I was thinking of opening my house to him. I would have loved to have him."

Kelly was accused of committing the abuse while he was a priest at Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton, when the plaintiff, now 37, was a student at Annunciation School.

Kelly also is under investigation by the Calaveras County Sheriff's Office because of another accusation of sexual molestation, this one from an altar boy who said the abuse occurred while Kelly served at St. Andrew's Church in San Andreas.

Blaire said the diocese has notified Calaveras law enforcement that Kelly left.

Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook learned of it Monday afternoon. She declined to comment.

"As far as we are concerned, it is still under investigation," Yook said.

Kelly has not been defrocked - he continues to hold the title of priest - but he is no longer allowed to wear a collar or celebrate sacraments, said Sister Terry Davis, communications director at Diocese of Stockton. It is unlikely any Catholic church would hire Kelly, because he would not pass a background investigation, Davis said.

Neither Beatty nor Manly knows if Kelly plans to return to the United States.

They are not sure how Kelly's departure will affect the civil trial, or what will happen in today's court hearing before San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt.

But Manly said he will pursue actions against Kelly for failing to meet his court obligation.

"I'm not going to let this go," he said. "He is not going to get off that easy."

Record staff writer Dana M. Nichols contributed to this report.



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