Claim against priest spurned

Friends: Accusation of sex abuse doesn't fit man they know

October 13, 2007 

Don't tell Jean Varni of Modesto that Catholic priest Michael Kelly is guilty of sexual abuse against any child.

"When he just came to (Our Lady of) Fatima, we were one of the first families he met. It cannot be," said Varni, who has known the priest since he arrived in the Stockton Diocese from Ireland in 1973.

Kelly, pastor of St. Joachim in Lockeford, has been accused of sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy in the family's Stockton home in the mid-1980s. The 56-year-old priest was placed on paid administrative leave until the allegation is resolved -- a process that could take years to complete.

No lawsuit had been filed as of Friday, but the accuser, now 33 years old, is represented by John Manly of Orange County. Manly, who has represented many victims of sexual abuse by clergymen, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Stockton lawyer Albert Ellis, who represents Kelly, said Friday that he had not heard from Manly or any other attorney. Nor, he added, had he been contacted by police.

The diocese referred the allegation against Kelly to Stockton police for possible criminal investigation.

Ellis, however, said he does not believe Kelly will face criminal prosecution because the allegation is so old.

The lawyer stressed that Kelly categorically denies the charge. He said a lie detector test found the priest was being truthful when he said he didn't abuse the boy or any other child.

"Father Kelly received hundreds of telephone calls of support today," Ellis said. "He's frustrated. He cannot return to work because of this allegation."

Ellis said Kelly has been barred from the rectory at St. Joachim, where he had been staying. Kelly was serving as the church's pastor.

"His family is in Ireland, so he's been staying with friends," Ellis said. "He has a lot of friends here."

The speed with which the Stockton Diocese moved on the case -- the allegations surfaced within the past two weeks -- is a result of a charter the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted in 2004 for the protection of children and young people.

According to the charter, the accused priest is put on administrative leave and no longer can serve as a priest. Kelly also will not be allowed to do any other diocesan work, according to Sister Terry Davis, director of communications for the diocese.

The Bee received telephone calls and e-mails Friday in support of Kelly.

Modestan Bob Gotelli, who served as the first commissioner of the Modesto Youth Soccer Association, said he has known Kelly for 33 years. Kelly was instrumental in the formation of the MYSA.

"He was the champion of the children," Gotelli said. "He was always making sure they were treated right by the coaches and the referees."

Gotelli, who considers Kelly one of his closest friends, said the priest befriended children from Catholic parishes in Mo- desto, Ceres, Stockton and Tracy without incident or allegation.

"My son traveled to Ireland with Mike as a member of a youth soccer team," Gotelli said. "When he heard about this (allegation), he was shocked, absolutely shocked."

Varni said she also thinks the charge against Kelly is false.

"Somebody wants easy money," Varni said. "He wouldn't do anything that wasn't kosher. My daughter's been a widow for 10 years. He calls on the date of her husband's death and also calls on the date that he married them. He's very thoughtful."

David Etcheverry, 43, was a student at Our Lady of Fatima school when Kelly arrived there from Ireland.

"I don't see how (the sex abuse) is possible," he said. "He was our soccer coach at the school and a friend of the family. If some of the team would go swimming, he always made sure we were in groups of two, three, four, five. He would never put himself in a position of anything questionable. He came here many times for dinner. I've known him from childhood all the way up."

In the meantime, Deacon Bill Warren will serve as parish administrator at St. Joachim, which has no associate pastors.

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