The Catholic Diocese of Stockton has settled a sexual abuse lawsuit for $3.75 million after the priest involved -- whom the bishop previously said he believed to be innocent -- fled the country.
On April 6, a San Joaquin County Superior Court jury found Fr. Michael Kelly, 62, liable for damages in a civil suit filed against him alleging he sexually molested a former altar boy in the mid-1980s at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton.
A second phase of the trial -- in which Fr. Kelly was expected to be a key witness -- had been scheduled to begin on April 16, but Fr. Kelly left the country the day before for his native Ireland, leaving behind a letter for Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire explaining why. The second phase was scheduled to assess whether the diocese was financially responsible for Fr. Kelly’s alleged misconduct.
As a consequence of Fr. Kelly’s departure, the trial had to be postponed. In the interim, the diocese and the plaintiff reached an out-of-court settlement.
“The Diocese of Stockton has reached an agreement to settle a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by Fr. Michael Kelly,” said an April 20 statement by Bishop Blaire. “The Diocese agreed to pay the plaintiff and his attorneys $3.75 million, with $2 million of this amount being paid by the Diocese’s insurance carriers. In response, the plaintiff will dismiss his lawsuit and seek no further action against the Diocese or Fr. Kelly.”
“The settlement brings an end to litigation that began more than 4-1/2 years ago and that has occupied a great deal of time and focus,” the brief statement continued. “We respect the right of everyone to have their day in court and we abide by the decisions that were made.”
Following the jury’s finding against Fr. Kelly on April 6, Bishop Stephen Blaire removed the longtime diocesan priest from ministry -- even though the bishop said he still believed the priest was innocent.
Fr. Kelly, until April 6 pastor at St. Joachim's Catholic Church in Lockeford, vigorously denied the allegations. No criminal charges were brought against Fr. Kelly because the statute of limitations had expired before his accuser came forward, but another case is reportedly under investigation by Calaveras County authorities.
In his April 15 letter to Bishop Blaire, Fr. Kelly wrote: “By the time you read this letter I will be in Ireland with my family. I am sorry for any difficulty this may cause the diocese, but my health can’t take it anymore.”
“I have sat back and listened to the vicious false allegations that have been spread about me for the past four and a half years, and my health has suffered greatly because of it,” Fr. Kelly wrote to the bishop. “I have spent the last 39 years of my life serving God and the people of the various parishes of the Diocese of Stockton. Now I have not only lost my ministry, but this whole thing has taken its toll on my very being. I have lost everything I have worked for because of these false allegations.”
“Since the verdict, I am on two kinds of medication for my stomach, I am having chronic bowel problems, I am getting an average of one hour of sleep a night and I am losing weight at an alarming rate,” Fr. Kelly told the bishop.
Fr. Kelly concluded his letter to Bishop Blaire: “Your faith in me has been unwavering, and for that I will be eternally grateful.”
Fr. Kelly came to California from Ireland in 1973 and served at parishes in Stockton, Modesto and Sonora until he was assigned in 2004 to St. Joachim's in Lockeford. Bishop Blaire briefly suspended Fr. Kelly from active ministry when the accusations against him first surfaced in September 2007, but the bishop reinstated Fr. Kelly in March 2008.
“We investigated as thoroughly as possible under these circumstances,” Bishop Blaire said in a statement at the time. “A professional investigator was engaged by the diocese. His investigation did not reveal any evidence of sexual abuse on the part of Father Kelly."