Stockton, California -- A Central Valley Catholic priest found liable in a civil trial for the molestation of an altar boy has fled the country in the midst of the trial, the Diocese of Stockton said.
Michael Kelly said he was having health problems from the stress of the trial and had returned to his native Ireland, according to a letter the diocese said it received from him on Monday.
"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 in the letter.
The diocese has since tried to contact Kelly by phone and email to ask him to return, but has not been able to get in touch with him, said Terry Davis, a spokeswoman for the diocese.
A civil jury found Kelly liable earlier this month for three counts related to child abuse, according to The Record of Stockton (http://bit.ly/HlAKZy). The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the alleged victim, now 37, who said Kelly abused him in the 1980s when Kelly was a priest at Cathedral of Annunciation in Stockton. Kelly was removed from the ministry following the jury's decision.
His final posting was with St. Joachim's Catholic Church in Lockeford. He was not criminally charged in connection with the Stockton case, but he is under investigation by sheriff's officials in Calaveras County on separate abuse allegations.
Kelly was scheduled to testify on Tuesday in the second phase of the civil trial, which was to focus on the diocese's handling of the case.
Attorneys for the alleged victim and Kelly say they are not sure how his departure will affect the trial. The judge sent the jury home for the day on Tuesday, Davis said.
"This was my client's chance to ask questions through his lawyer about what (Kelly) did," John Manly, the attorney representing the alleged victim, said. "Now ... we're not going to have that chance."
Thomas Beatty, Kelly's attorney, said he was surprised that Kelly had left and was worried people would misinterpret it as an indication of his guilt.
"I pray for his returned health," Beatty said. "I believe in him and so do his supporters."
The plaintiff had also called on Cardinal Roger Mahony to testify in the case and has asked the court to hold him in contempt after he failed to show up. Mahony, who was dogged by allegations of clergy abuse as archbishop of Los Angeles, was formerly the bishop of the Diocese of Stockton.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles said he has gone to Rome.