In October 2007, a press release shook me like few could have. Father Michael Kelly, a man I’ve known since I was 6 years old and count among my friends, had been accused of molesting a past parishioner.
It was staggering. This couldn’t be happening, I thought, to the priest who once preached from the pulpit at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church.
The Kelly I know is a true leader of his flock, a man who has said the most important thing about the priesthood is bringing some of God’s love and light into people’s lives. And he’s put the premise into practice.
When he moved away from Annunciation Church (the seat of the Diocese of San Joaquin in Stockton, where I also attended grade school and where the alleged abuse took place), he returned time and again to visit those he had befriended there. He was especailly beloved by the students. As a pastor, he saw Presentation Church in Stockton go up in flames by the hand of a deranged arsonist and helped it rise again. He maintained relationships with parishioners who anyone else would have long forgotten. And he remembers when your birthday is.
No, this couldn’t be happening.
When the news first broke, I wrote that my intuition and experience told me he was wrongly targeted, even though I didn’t know the facts of the case.
Turns out there weren’t any facts to find.
The wolves were called off last week when an investigation found no evidence supporting the claim of his accuser — a 33-year-old man who said he was abused in the 1980s. We don’t know why that man blamed Kelly or why he refused to talk to investigators, but hopefully he finds some measure of peace.
I was filled with relief for Kelly, and happy that the parishioners of St. Joachim Parish will no longer be deprived of their spiritual shepherd.
But I am also filled with sadness — sadness that the Catholic Church’s shame has affected so many, even those I call friends.
The church’s sex abuse saga is a tragedy in three acts, with no end in sight.
Act 1 opened with priests abusing young boys and girls. They found themselves betrayed by the very representatives of God, people who should have been safe harbors for their deepest fears, hopes and struggles. Many people suffered.
Act 2 began with the revelation of the scandal. But not only were priests outed as molesters, it’s also discovered that church superiors helped cover up the abuse. The church predictably lost the trust and faith of many followers. Some victims got their justice, and all painfully relived their darkest moments. Many people suffered.
Act 3 is the prolonged fallout. Accusations continue, some with merit, some without. While many guilty are still punished, some victims are deprived of their justice, and some priests have their good names irreparably damaged. And many people still suffer.
We’re all waiting for the curtain call, but with revelations and accusations still coming at a steady pace, this macabre theater shows no sign of closing.
But despite the sorrow, there are small victories mixed into the plot. In the case of Father Kelly, I’m just glad a good priest — and a good man — can move on with his life and calling.