Several parishioners at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Sonora say they are undeterred in supporting their former pastor, who was earlier this month found liable in civil court of sexually abusing a Stockton boy in the mid-1980s.
The Rev. Michael Kelly, 62, who was most recently pastor of St. Joachim Church in Lockeford, served at the Sonora parish and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Big Oak Flat for nearly 10 years before being named pastor of Presentation Church in north Stockton in 1997.
The civil case being heard in San Joaquin County Superior Court stems from a 2008 claim based largely on the recovered memories of a now-37-year-old Fairfax man, who says he was sexually abused by Kelly between the ages of 7 and 11 while the priest babysat him.
A jury on April 6 found Kelly liable on three counts for the assault, sexual battery and abuse. The trial began in mid-February.
"I think priests are easy targets these days, along with anybody who works with children. There's just a lot of vulnerability there, unfortunately," said Leon Casas, of Sonora, a lifelong member of St. Patrick's.
Kelly was set to testify this week in the second phase of the trial - where the plaintiff's attorneys will attempt to prove the Diocese of Stockton hid Kelly's misconduct.
Kelly fled the United States on Sunday to return to his home country of Ireland, according to a letter sent to Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire.
In the letter, Kelly cites physical ailments resulting from the stress of the trial as the reason for his departure.
"I think he's a man of integrity. I don't think he's running away from the truth," Casas said.
Kelly's supporters say he was an active member of the community during his tenure in Tuolumne County, refereeing youth soccer leagues, participating in various community service clubs and raising money for the building of the multipurpose hall next to the Sonora church.
In 1991, he was one of three finalists out of more than two dozen nominees for Citizen of the Year by the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce.
Sonora resident Joan Holland, who sometimes assisted Kelly with altar duties, said Kelly was a dedicated servant to both his parishioners and people of the community. The recent turn of events has been "extremely hard for those of us that experienced him personally over the years."
Holland added that she never saw him have any inappropriate interactions with children at the church and can't imagine he's guilty of the acts for which the San Joaquin County jury found him liable.
"I have doubts when a person suddenly has a repressed memory recovery," she said.
Sue Julian, of Sonora, said she has known Kelly since before he came to St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
Her boys were altar servers and her youngest son, Kevin, who is now a Marine, recently told her in an e-mail that he holds other priests to the benchmark set by "Father Mike."
Julian said she and other supporters have been perplexed by the allegations and were in communication with Kelly before he left the country.
Julian and her husband, Bob, went to a service on April 1 at the Lockeford church where Kelly was pastor before the jury came to a verdict. She said it appeared as if his health was deteriorating and he had visibly lost a considerable amount of weight.
"Personally, I'm glad he has gone to Ireland because I know his health has been destroyed by this," she said. "He needs to go to a place where he doesn't have to deal with the accusations and can be in the loving arms of family."