Father Michael Kelly, 59, a priest from Balingarry, County Tipperary who is now based in California, is facing a civil legal action over allegations that he sexually abused a child in 1984. 

Kelly, who served in a number of California parishes over 35 years, was placed on administrative leave in September 2007 while his own diocese investigated the charge made against him.

After the diocesan review board, based in Stockton, California, found no evidence to support the claim of sexual abuse, Kelly was cleared of wrongdoing and reinstated to active ministry at St Joachim’s Catholic Church in March 2008.

The decision by Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton marks the second time in less than a month that a California bishop has exonerated and reinstated an accused priest. On February 23, Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron made a similar finding regarding a priest of that diocese, Franciscan Father Chris Berbena.

Kelly was alleged to have sexually assaulted a boy in 1984, but was cleared of wrongdoing following an internal investigation by the church after the man who made the accusation’s legal team refused to cooperate.

In a statement, the bishop said, “We made numerous attempts to contact the claimant as soon as the matter was brought to our attention by a third party.”

Attorney Patrick Wall, whose firm specializes in representing clerical sex abuse victims, 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 and had little faith in their investigation.

“The only way for all the facts to emerge in this case is for a civil action, which we have filed,” he told the press last week.

The man who alleges the abuse is now a 33-year-old pilot employed by the Air Force. He claims the abuse happened in the family home in Stockton when Kelly was babysitting him as a child when he was less than 10 years of age.

Kelly trained as a seminarian in St Patrick's College in Tipperary before being sent to California. Bishop Blaire said he had received hundreds of letters in support of Kelly while the case was pending, but that it was necessary that a thorough investigation be undertaken.

The bishop described the investigation as a painful and difficult process. The diocese reported the allegations against Kelly to the police, but no police investigation was undertaken because neither the alleged victim nor the third party ever came forward to file a complaint, a Stockton Police Department spokesman said.

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.