A former Catholic priest has denied allegations that he molested an altar boy while ministering at a San Andreas parish from 2000 to 2002, and local supporters have rallied around him.
Michael Kelly, who left for his native Ireland earlier this year after being found liable of sexual abuse in a 2007 lawsuit, said Monday in an email sent to The Union Democrat that he couldn't discuss many details of the case but fiercely denied any wrongdoing.
"Never, ever did I molest IN ANY WAY this person," Kelly wrote in the email. "The allegations are completely false as are ANY allegations of my molesting anyone at any time. It never happened. Never."
Meanwhile, a number of parishioners and friends have signed up with a group publicly defending the former Mother Lode priest, citing positive personal experiences and questionable evidence used by attorneys.
More than 1,200 church and community members have joined the "Friends of Father Kelly," a grassroots advocacy group formed in 2007 when the first civil lawsuit against former Lockeford priest Michael Kelly was filed in San Joaquin County Superior Court, according to organizers.
"Now, Friends of Father Kelly is focusing its mission of coordinating communication flow and stressing fact-based information," the unincorporated group stated in a news release Friday. "The efforts aim to keep supporters and the community updated on developments; promote fair and balanced reporting in the media; and raise public awareness of a growing trend of falsely accused priests."
Kelly served as a priest at various Central Valley and Mother Lode parishes since the 1980s. He ministered at St. Patrick's Parish in Sonora from 1987 to 1997, where he also oversaw a youth soccer league.
In the 2007 lawsuit, Fairfax resident Travis Trotter, a 38-year-old airline pilot, accused Kelly of molesting him while an altar boy at Stockton's Cathedral of the Annunciation between 1984 and 1985.
A San Joaquin County jury found Kelly liable of the abuse allegations in April of this year. He fled to his native Ireland the day after the verdict, citing stress-related health issues. The Diocese of Stockton on April 20 settled the case for $3.75 million.
Trotter's Irvine attorney John Manly announced last week the filing of a new civil claim against Kelly and the diocese, alleging the former priest sexually abused a then-12-year-old Calaveras County altar boy.
The civil claim for damages further alleges that high-ranking Stockton Diocese officials conspired to conceal past allegations of abuse against Kelly and ignored a psychiatric evaluation that suggested he shouldn't be allowed to minister to children or families with children.
"This accusation five years ago in Stockton was the first time there had ever been a hint of scandal about him," said Paul Neumann, of Modesto, spokesman for Friends of Father Kelly. "To us, the idea that he had been a predator all these years was simply implausible."
Neumann, who has known Kelly for 38 years, said a number of people in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties have joined the group in support since the newest allegations surfaced shortly after Kelly left the country in April.
Calaveras County Sheriff's detectives are conducting an investigation into the accusations stemming from Kelly's time at St. Andrew's Parish in San Andreas, but prosecutors have yet to file criminal charges.
"Because he was found liable (in the 2007 case) and the judgment was so large, we thought there would be similar cases that would come forward without corroborating evidence and based specifically on repressed memories," Neumann said.
Kelly's supporters have criticized the use of "repressed memories" as evidence. They were the basis for the 2007 lawsuit against Kelly and other similar lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
Experts debate the legitimacy of forgotten, and later retrieved, memories of childhood abuse.
According to the American Psychological Association, some clinicians have theorized the rare phenomenon occurs as a way for a victim to shelter himself or herself from a painful memory. Others argue that convincing "pseudomemories" of events that didn't actually happen can be constructed during therapy process.
"I'm sure there are some very awful things that have happened and priests that have committed terrible abuses, but not this one," said Sonora resident Gloria Carrillo.
Carrillo has known Kelly since he started ministering at St. Patrick's in 1987, and said she never noticed any signs of abuse. She said Kelly would have dinner with the family at their home and interact with their children, but never in an inappropriate manner.
Carrillo joined the Friends of Father Kelly group in 2007 to keep up with the latest developments in the Trotter case, but became more involved just before Kelly testified in the trial earlier this year.
Around this time, Carrillo claims she received a call from someone with the Manly & Stewart law firm asking if her son, who was in eighth grade when Kelly arrived in Sonora, wanted to participate in an upcoming lawsuit.
"I left that call feeling like, if I had wanted my son to participate, they would find those memories whether they existed or not," Carrillo said, noting she regrets not writing down the exact date and time of the call and the name of the representative.
Vince Finaldi, an attorney with Manly & Stewart, denied the call ever happened.
"I'd like to get that person's name and get them to say that under oath," he said.
Finaldi also noted that the new case involving the San Andreas victim doesn't revolve around repressed memories.
"This kid is young, he's only 24 years old, he didn't repress anything. It's a red herring to detract from the real issues," Finaldi said. "How many different victims need to come forward that have specific recollections of it happening?"
The Stockton Diocese has 30 days to respond to the civil complaint filed Sept. 11, and then attorneys for both sides can begin taking depositions and subpoena witnesses. Finaldi said Kelly will eventually be deposed in Ireland if it comes to that.
The Calaveras County Sheriff's Office launched a criminal investigation of Kelly inApril when the accusations of abuse in San Andreas surfaced.
Sgt. Chris Hewitt said the report was given to the District Attorney's Office months ago. Prosecutors are still conducting their own investigation and have yet to file any criminal charges against Kelly, according to the office.
Tuolumne County Sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Wilson said he was unaware of whether any possible Tuolumne County victims had come forward.