The Rev. Michael Kelly was reinstated Friday as pastor of a church in Lockeford after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockton found no basis for an allegation that he sexually abused a child in 1984.
Kelly, 58, a well-known priest who has served at parishes in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Tuolumne counties over 35 years, was placed on administrative leave in September while the diocese investigated the charge.
Although the bishop cleared Kelly of wrongdoing, the attorney for the man who leveled the charge said he will file a lawsuit. Kelly returned to his duties at St. Joachim's Catholic Church on Friday morning and is expected to say Mass and oversee a St. Patrick's celebration Sunday.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Stockton diocese issued a written statement saying the diocese was unable during the investigation to speak with the man who accused Kelly.
"We made numerous attempts to contact the claimant as soon as the matter was brought to our attention by a third party," Blaire said. "The claimant, through his attorney, stated that he did not wish to speak with the bishop."
The person who brought the claim to the diocese - said to be the man's attorney - also refused to cooperate, the statement says. Blaire said the diocese investigated the claim as thoroughly as possible, even hiring a professional investigator.
"His investigation did not reveal any evidence of sexual abuse on the part of Father Kelly," Blaire said.
Alleged victim on active duty
Attorney John Manly of Orange County, who has represented numerous clients in sex abuse cases against clergymen, said he will file a lawsuit naming Kelly and the Stockton diocese. He said his client, in his early 30s, is in active military duty.
Manly said he "is the single most credible client I have ever represented. The bottom line is they are going to get sued."
The attorney divulged a few specifics of the allegation. He claims his client was violated by the priest when he was less than 10 years old. The alleged abuse occurred when Kelly was baby-sitting the boy and his sister at their home, he said.
Manly said the Stockton diocese has a poor record of protecting minors from abuse by clergy, so he wouldn't allow his client to talk with the bishop.
"If you really want that to happen, their lawyer could have called and said 'Can we meet," Manly said. "I am not about to let my client sit down with the bishop, the man who protects molesters. I am not going to do it."
The diocese said it was given no specifics of the charge other than that the alleged abuse occurred in the home. Sister Terry Davis, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said she could not comment on the potential litigation.
Kelly said Friday he had only a vague recollection of Manly's client. He again denied the charge.
"I am not going to answer specifics about that," he said. "Absolutely no wrongdoing of any kind occurred."
The diocese informed Stockton police of the allegation last fall. A Stockton police spokesman said no investigation was conducted because the man did not contact the department.
Priest has many supporters
Kelly said he was grateful to the bishop and diocese for conducting an extensive investigation and "to be back worshipping God with the wonderful people of this parish."
Blaire said he discussed the matter with the Diocesan Review Board before deciding to reinstate Kelly. He received more than 500 letters supporting Kelly and asking for his return to the ministry.
Those supporters praised the decision.
"It took too long, but it is great," said Jean Varni of Modesto. "Everybody is on cloud nine. He is a good person. We know the accusation was not true."
Varni is among parishioners who have said their children spent time with Kelly, whether serving Mass or playing in soccer leagues, without any complaints about the priest. She said she believes he was being smeared out of a desire for a major legal settlement.
"Father Kelly has had more involvement with children than any minister I know," said Robert Gotelli, who worked with the priest in the Modesto Youth Soccer Association. "For only one person to make an allegation against him in 30 years should tell you something."
Diocese's troubled past
Kelly served at St. Jude's Catholic Church in Ceres before becoming the pastor of St. Joachim in July 2004.
He was associate pastor at Our Lady of Fatima in Modesto from 1973 to 1979.
During the time of the alleged abuse, he was serving in San Joaquin County. He was an associate at St. Bernard's in Tracy from September 1979 to June 1984 and was associate pastor at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton from June 1984 to June 1987.
He later ministered at Catholic churches in Sonora, Stockton and San Andreas. Also known outside Catholic circles, he was instrumental in founding the Modesto Youth Soccer Association.
The Stockton diocese has experience with sexual abuse charges against priests. In 1993, the Rev. Oliver O'Grady was sentenced to 14 years in state prison after being convicted of molesting two brothers. A civil jury in San Joaquin County ordered the diocese to pay the brothers $30 million. The award later was reduced to $7.5 million.
In March 2005, the diocese agreed to pay $3.6 million to settle claims by two other alleged O'Grady victims from Lodi. Four civil lawsuits against O'Grady are pending.
The diocese was named in another case involving charges of sexual misconduct by the Rev. Murty Fahy, who died in 2001.