Thomas Francis Kelly
Three survivors of sexual abuse by Father Thomas Kelly contacted the Attorney General’s investigators to share their eerily similar experiences. Kelly was a serial predator who abused more than 15 boys ranging in age from 11 to 17 during the 1960s and 1970s. He would make his victims feel special by taking them to dinner, movies and concerts. He would often let these teenagers drive his car—and he also gave them alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. He showed them pornographic magazines and invited them to spend the night in the rectory where he would sexually abuse them, often while they were drunk. The abuse consisted of kissing, fondling, masturbation, and oral sex.
Kelly began abusing boys soon after his 1962 ordination. Joe, who asked that his real name be used, considers himself one of the lucky ones. He says he has an outward appearance of being healthy and successful but his life has been a struggle. “Through the grace of God, I have been able to overcome the fact that I was an abused child.”
Joe was an altar server at Saint John Vianney in Northlake. He was raised in a Catholic family; his mother was devoutly religious, and he was taught to hold priests in high esteem. He remembers Kelly, who was the parish pastor, used the classic techniques of a child predator. “He groomed us to feel like we were special. He would take care of us and provide us greater opportunity than we would have without him.”
In 1962 or 1963, Kelly took Joe aside to tell him about a weightlifting class he was starting after school. Only a few boys were invited, so Joe was honored to be included. Kelly also invited Joe out to dinner, drive-in movies, and eventually to spend the night at the rectory. Joe was only 11 years old, but his parents were thrilled. “Where could you be safer?” they said.
At the rectory, Kelly offered Joe beer. And then, in the middle of the night, Joe woke up to find himself being sexually assaulted by the man he trusted and held in high esteem. Kelly was performing oral sex on the young boy. He said, “This is a good thing, but it’s just between you and I; you don’t ever say anything to anybody.”
Joe doesn’t remember how many times the abuse happened. He blocked that out. But he knows it also happened to his classmates. He and his friends would joke among themselves, “You spent the night at the rectory? Did Father Kelly give you the pajamas without the snap in front?”
Joe didn’t know what to do, so he started to stay away from Kelly. Then suddenly, one day, Kelly was gone. The parishioners were never told where he went. Joe remembers the church gave the “phony” explanation that Kelly had found a better opportunity.
Joe had enjoyed being Catholic. But when the abuse occurred, his foundation began to crumble. He holds the church responsible for what happened to him and so many others: “They made the church a safe harbor.” He believes the church “is an organization that preaches protection of children, but when it comes to protection of children versus protection of their financial assets, the financial assets move to the top.” He insists the church could have stopped the sexual abuse of children had it done the right thing.
Joe suppressed Kelly’s abuse, but the memories came back when his daughter was born. He knew he had to deal with issues like his inability to have relationships and his lack of trust. He wanted to be a better person, and he felt the need to protect his daughter. Around that time, he saw a newspaper article describing what happens to survivors of sexual assault. He understood he wasn’t alone.
Joe also hired an attorney, who helped him contact the Archdiocese of Chicago to report Kelly’s abuse. He shared his feelings of disappointment that the archdiocese “buried its head in the sand” and allowed a known predator like Kelly to move from parish to parish. The archdiocesan staff who met with Joe “all were nice people.” But, he said, “I didn’t feel like it was getting anywhere.”
The archdiocese arranged a meeting between Joe and Cardinal Francis George. The cardinal asked Joe to join an ad hoc committee to review the church’s policies that deal with accused priests. Joe participated in the committee’s meetings and shared his viewpoint as a survivor. The cardinal also invited him to share his experience with archdiocesan priests because, according to the cardinal, many of them did not understand “the true effects on people who were abused.” Joe spoke for over an hour. The cardinal later told Joe a priest had approached him to say “it was the most powerful message the priest had heard regarding child abuse in the Catholic church.” The cardinal said he agreed.
“Richard” also contacted the Attorney General’s investigators to share his experience of abuse by Kelly. It occurred in 1962 and 1963 when he was 12 and 13 years old. Richard remembers Kelly was the “cool priest” who was in charge of altar servers like him at Saint John Vianney—the same parish Joe attended. Richard was athletic and a devoted Catholic—and he was one of Kelly’s favorites. “It felt pretty good to be chosen by him,” Richard says.
Kelly created a weightlifting room in the parish school. He would pull Richard and a few other boys out of class early to join him there and “be one of the guys.” “I felt special,” Richard recalls. But in the weightlifting room, Kelly would grab and fondle Richard. “I didn’t catch on to his shenanigans because I didn’t know what they meant,” Richard explains.
Kelly asked Richard’s parents if he could take him out to dinner. They said yes; his mother couldn’t have been prouder. Kelly took Richard to an Italian restaurant on Grand Avenue in Chicago. After dinner, Kelly took Richard to the movies. “He would sneak us into these adult movie areas,” Richard remembers. “There were never many people there, and he would touch me and try to play with my groin. I’d brush him away, and he’d get upset.” Kelly warned Richard not to tell anyone about it: “No one will believe you because I am a priest.”
Kelly introduced Richard to alcohol when he was 13 years old. After treating Richard to a Notre Dame football game, Kelly drove him to the rectory instead of his parents’ home. Kelly offered Richard a drink and tried to grope him. “I repeatedly asked him to stop,” Richard remembers. “He wouldn’t.” Later, Richard awoke in his underwear and Kelly was rubbing his penis against Richard’s leg. “I asked him to stop and told him I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t because of the time of day.”
Kelly’s abuse lasted until Richard graduated from the eighth grade. He never told anyone because of Kelly’s warning that no one would believe him. And in any event, Richard did not want to embarrass his parents.
The abuse caused Richard to become an alcoholic right out of high school. “That’s how I drowned my thoughts,” he explains. He credits his wife for encouraging him to see a psychologist. It took a while, but Richard finally was able to talk about Kelly’s abuse, not only with the psychologist, but also with his wife. His wife told him she sensed something wasn’t quite right when they first got married, but she couldn’t pinpoint it. “When he finally told me, he was bawling his eyes out,” she recalls. “I knew there had to be something major that happened in his childhood.”
Today, Richard says he still “kicks” himself for not telling anyone about the abuse when it was happening. “I thought I was the only one,” he explains. “What got me was that I didn’t have the fortitude to tell someone, even my parents.” He now knows the archdiocese moved Kelly around from parish to parish, even after learning he was abusing young boys. That “really pissed me off,” he says.
Indeed, the archdiocese’s records establish it was well-aware of Kelly’s abuse as it was happening. The church appears to have first received allegations of sexual misconduct against Kelly in October 1967. A note from Cardinal John Cody to the archdiocese’s chancellor that same month asked tersely, “What are you planning to do about this Father Kelly?” The chancellor responded that he intended to transfer Kelly from Saint John Vianney—Joe and Richard’s parish—to Saint Catherine of Genoa in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood. The cardinal agreed with this approach. Kelly wrote the chancellor a few months later to assure him “it does not seem that there has been any public scandal” caused by his abrupt departure. “I have been faithful to my spiritual exercises,” Kelly said, “and I am more convinced than before that there is no real problem as long as vigilance and common sense prevail.”
Later that same year, however, it appears the archdiocese received additional allegations against Kelly. In a November 1968 letter to Cardinal Cody, Kelly wrote, “I cannot think of myself as anything but a priest.” The letter continued: “If you would consider giving me one last chance to prove I can be a good priest, I know that I can do it. . . . If you will allow me to remain, I will seek psychiatric help immediately.” Kelly acknowledged “what a risk” the cardinal would be taking by giving him “one more chance.” Apparently the cardinal was comfortable with the potential consequences, for Kelly remained a priest.
“Ben,” another survivor who came forward to speak to the Attorney General’s investigators, is one of the children who suffered as a result of the cardinal’s approach to Kelly’s abuse. He was a parishioner at Saint Catherine of Genoa—where Kelly was transferred after the first allegations surfaced. Ben was 17 years old at the time of the abuse. But, he explains, he was “immature” and “easy to take advantage of.” His father had recently died.
One day, during a parish picnic, Kelly invited Ben and a friend to the rectory for an afterparty. Kelly enticed them with the promise of gin, women, and pornography. After they arrived at the rectory, Kelly put the boys in separate rooms. Ben doesn’t remember what happened that night.
He saw Kelly several times that week. Kelly took him to drive-in movies, gave him a lot of alcohol, and brought him back to the rectory to spend the night. Kelly told him to take a shower before going to bed. Ben awoke in the middle of the night to find Kelly trying to perform oral sex on him. Ben rolled over and said, “No, no, no!” Kelly was muscular and domineering, so Ben didn’t want to confront him.
The next day, they went to a drive-in and had more beer. Kelly let Ben drive his fancy car before returning to his room in the rectory. Ben recalls “it was very clear that he was trying to perform oral sex on me.”
Another time, Kelly took Ben to see a movie. During the movie, Kelly put his hand down Ben’s crotch; in the car, Kelly tried to have oral sex with him. Ben said, “No.” He went home and never saw Kelly alone again.
Ben did tell his friend and his cousin what Kelly did to him, and both said Kelly had tried to do the same things to them. But, Ben says, he “made the biggest mistake and the thing I felt most guilty about: I kept my mouth shut. Back then, you didn’t talk about priests because they were above reproach.”
Ben still feels guilty today because he knows Kelly continued to get “cycled through a whole bunch of parishes”—and he assumes the abuse continued. “I feel like a bad guy,” he concedes. “I continue to bear that guilt, and that’s not fun.” But Ben also believes “everyone” in the church knew what Kelly was doing to young boys like him. He is angry that the archdiocese and other priests did nothing to protect him.