Former San Joachim's Church Priest Michael Kelly (CLIFFORD OTO/The Record)

The case of Father Michael Kelly who fled to Ireland from California this week after a successful civil suit against him for molesting a child is more complicated than it may seem.

Kelly passed two lie detector tests, and the diocese of Stockton in California believed him not guilty after an intensive inquiry.

Hundreds of his parishioners still stand with him and he was clearly a very popular priest. The pages of local newspapers are filled with testimonials to his work by former parishioners.

Even after the verdict, and before he fled to Ireland, hundreds of parishioners showed up in the parish hall to support him.

Many believe he has been unfairly targeted because of the activities of a colleague, Father Oliver Grady, a notorious pedophile who was defrocked.

Worse, the accusation against him by a 37-year-old man was based on “repressed memories” a notoriously suspect form of evidence rife with problems.

Many of the scandalous accusations of recent years, the McMartin preschool case for instance,  have come about through the “repressed memories” or “false memories” route, which are notoriously unreliable and dismissed in many psychiatric quarters.
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The accuser was forced to admit in court that testimony which he gave earlier was completely inconsistent with his latest evidence.

A jury did find for the accuser last week and Kelly fled to Ireland, to his family in Tipperary, soon after. He told his bishop he was in ill health and needed to be with his Irish family.

He has proclaimed his innocence very loudly and continuously and many clearly still believe him. By all accounts he was an outstanding priest.

Reading the reporting of the trial, the corroborating witnesses called mainly accused Kelly of “horseplay” with their children, bouncing them up and down and playing roughly with them.

That is hardly the stuff of rampant abuse and could well be seen as belonging to another time when priests and parish kids and families interacted much more with each other.

Kelly was one of dozens of Irish priests who came to the diocese of Sacramento from the seminary in Thurles, County Tipperary.

The vast majority did sterling work and have rightfully earned enormous respect and support as a result.
There was the horrific abuse of Oliver Grady at the other extreme.

Quite where Father Kelly fits is a lot harder to say. There are clearly unanswered questions but the possibility remains clear in my mind that he is an innocent man.