An Irish priest found guilty of child abuse in California has fled home to his family in Ireland – and continued to plead his innocence.

Fr Michael Kelly has absconded after a civil jury in Stockton, Southern California, ruled that he had molested a young boy.

Bishop of Stockton, Stephen Blaire, has now appealed to the Tipperary native to return to America and ‘see his trial through’.

The Stockton jury ruled unanimously that an unnamed man was molested by Fr Kelly when he was a boy.

The 62-year-old priest was immediately removed from his ministry but denied the allegations while admitting that the jury verdict had to be ‘respected’.

Bishop Blaire has now confirmed that Kelly had written to him after fleeing to Ireland ahead of sentencing.

Media reports quote the letter as saying: “By the time you read this letter I will be in Ireland with my family. I am sorry for any difficulty this may cause the Diocese, but my health can’t take it anymore.

“I have sat back and listened to the vicious false allegations that have been spread about me for the past 4 ½ years, and my health has suffered greatly because of it.

“I have spent the last 39 years of my life serving God and the people of the various parishes of the Diocese of Stockton. Now I have not only lost my ministry, but this whole thing has taken its toll on my very being."

“I have lost everything I have worked for because of these false allegations.”

Fr Kelly joined the Stockton diocese in 1973 after completing his seminary studies in Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

He has served as pastor of St. Joachim’s Catholic Church in Lockeford since 2004 but was removed after the civil verdict last April when he was sued by a now 37-year-old man for sexually assaulting him when the plaintiff was an altar boy in the mid-1980s at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton.

Reports say that the second phase of the civil trial - to determine if the Diocese of Stockton took appropriate action with Kelly when it learned about allegations against him - is still ongoing.

Bishop Blaire replied to media enquiries in a statement. It read: “This afternoon, I was stunned to receive a letter from Fr. Michael Kelly informing me he had returned to Ireland in the midst of the civil trial in which he is a defendant.

“I have tried to reach Fr Kelly by email and by phone to implore him to return and see the trial through to its completion.

“We notified opposing counsel in the civil trial as well as law enforcement authorities in Calaveras County, where a criminal investigation has been underway since September.”

The survivors group SNAP has called on every bishop in Ireland to use all of the resources available to them to warn their flocks and communities about Fr Kelly.