Calaveras County law enforcement officials said Wednesday they are looking into claims from multiple alleged victims of former Catholic priest Michael Kelly, who has been under investigation since September for accusations he abused a former altar boy at a San Andreas Church.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Hewitt said detectives are pursuing leads on other possible victims, but details about the exact number and circumstances behind the allegations were scarce due to the scope of the investigation.
“I’m getting limited information that detectives want to put out because there may be many victims involved,” he said.
Kelly, 62, was a pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Sonora from 1987 to 1997, in addition to serving at St. Andrew’s in San Andreas during the early 2000s.
Calaveras County authorities began investigating Kelly in late September after receiving a letter from attorneys for an unnamed 21-year-old man who claimed he was sexually abused by the priest while an altar boy at St. Andrews between 2000 and 2002.
A separate civil case against Kelly has been under way in San Joaquin County Superior Court since 2008.
A now-37-year-old Fairfax man alleges Kelly molested him in the mid-1980s, when he was an altar boy at Church of the Annunciation in Stockton, and the Stockton Diocese hid the misconduct.
A jury on April 6 found Kelly liable on three counts for assault, sexual battery and abuse. The Stockton Diocese immediately removed Kelly from ministry following the verdict.
The former priest was scheduled to testify Tuesday during the second phase of the case but fled to Ireland days before, citing health issues related to stress as a reason for his sudden departure.
Defense attorneys and the diocese said they had no prior knowledge of Kelly’s intent to leave the country.
Kelly’s flight will not affect the Calaveras County criminal investigation, according to Hewitt.
“This investigation will continue until it’s completed,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes from there and whether that involves the district attorney getting an arrest warrant.”
Meanwhile, the San Joaquin County civil trial continued Wednesday after being halted the day before because of the recent developments.
In the second phase of the trial, the jury will determine whether there is enough evidence to hold the Stockton Diocese liable for damages.
Prior to the jury entering the courtroom, attorneys representing the diocese argued the claims should be dismissed due to a lack of sufficient evidence.
The plaintiff’s attorneys are attempting to prove the diocese was negligent in having Kelly work among children without proper supervision, failed to warn or educate parishioners and the public regarding complaints about Kelly’s behavior with kids, and ratified his misconduct by keeping him in the ministry — among other claims.
San Francisco attorney James Goodman pleaded for Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt to strike the claim that Kelly’s actions were condoned by the diocese, calling it a “wastebasket claim that brings in gossip and rumor.”
McNatt upheld the claim, saying entities have been held liable in the past for the actions of agents employed by them.
He also cited the “pedophilia risks” in some priests as an issue that should have been in the forefront of considerations by the diocese.
Before the hearing began, McNatt instructed the jury they could “distrust or disbelieve” any of Kelly’s depositions that may be presented as evidence during the remainder of the trial if they felt he left the country to avoid testifying.
The Rev. Monsignor Richard Ryan testified at Wednesday’s hearing, where he was questioned by the plaintiff’s attorney, John Manly, about past complaints against Kelly the diocese investigated.
Manly focused on interviews with three individuals between March and December 1999 while Kelly was pastor at Presentation Church in north Stockton, which were conducted by Ryan after the church had apparently received several complaints about Kelly’s conduct with children.
Manly cited allegations made in the interviews that parents felt uncomfortable having their children around Kelly and that he was seen getting aroused while tickling a child.
Ryan said the allegations were discussed with only Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire and diocese lawyers.
“In 1999, did you believe it was important to notify parents of complaints about Kelly?” Manly asked.
“While some said Father Kelly’s behavior with children was inappropriate, no one said he was sexually abusing a child,” Ryan said.
Shortly after the interviews were conducted in December 1999, Kelly was scheduled to go on sabbatical for ulcer problems and was told to also see a psychologist for an “intense evaluation,” Ryan said.
Manly asked whether the accusations of misconduct were brought before the diocese personnel board, which decides the placement of priests in the various parishes.
“No, it just didn’t happen,” Ryan said.
Ryan confirmed that Kelly was also a member of the personnel board until he was removed from ministry two weeks ago.
Manly said after the hearing the trial is expected to last at least another week.