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RI Crime

A R.I. priest was charged with sexual assault, but the case remains in limbo

Edward Kelley, 79, was arrested in South Carolina in mid-May, but has not yet been arraigned or included on Diocese of Providence’s list of credibly accused priests

Rev. Peter Gower holds Mass from the front door of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church as worshippers listen over the radio from their cars in the parking lot, Sunday, March 29, 2020, in Johnston, R.I.
Rev. Peter Gower holds Mass from the front door of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church as worshippers listen over the radio from their cars in the parking lot, Sunday, March 29, 2020, in Johnston, R.I.David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — State authorities are quietly prosecuting a sexual assault case against a former Diocese of Providence priest.

Edward Kelley, 79, had relocated to South Carolina, where he was arrested in mid-May on a warrant out of Rhode Island, according to court records. He was later brought to Rhode Island, where he faces an indictment on three counts of first-degree sexual assault dating to 1983 in North Smithfield.

But Kelley, who served in at least four parishes in Rhode Island in the 1980s and 1990s, has yet to be arraigned.

An arraignment is where someone is formally notified of the charges against them in court, and where they can enter a plea. Prosecutors can’t publicly disclose details of the case against Kelley until after he’s been arraigned, though a indictment -- with the word PUBLIC written across the top in large type -- was filed in court records, saying that Kelley is accused of sexual assault by force or coercion.

A judge has ordered Kelley to undergo a competency evaluation, to make sure he’s able to understand the proceedings against him and assist in his own defense. The evaluation was set to take place at the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital, which has facilities for people involved in the criminal justice system, according to court records, and was listed as being held there without bail. Court records say the competency report has been completed, but no decision about competence has been made.

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So far, the process has been kept out of the public eye.

A court date on July 16 before Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Montalbano was held in the judge’s chambers, meaning not in public, and some documents were apparently submitted but sealed. The court records that are publicly available do not say why the judge suspected Kelley may not be competent to stand trial. Another court date is scheduled for next month.

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Kelley’s lawyer, Kara Hoopis Manosh, declined to comment after the court hearing on July 16. The attorney general’s office declined to comment because it’s an ongoing case that hasn’t reached the arraignment stage.

But Timothy Conlon, the attorney who represents priest abuse victims in Rhode Island, said in response to inquiries from the Globe that he represents a victim of Kelley referenced in the indictment. His client was a boy at the time the abuse took place, Conlon said. A lawsuit hasn’t been filed yet.

“I can confirm that this individual contacted me some time ago, and as our country dealt with COVID, these allegations worked their way through the appropriate criminal process,” Conlon said in a statement to the Globe. “My client reports living with Kelley in Rectories at two parishes here in Rhode Island during the ‘80s. Although this practice was reported to the Hierarchy of the Diocese at the time, Kelley persisted in maintaining a relationship with the boy, which included the boy living in Diocesan quarters with Kelley after that conduct had been reported.”

Conlon also said his client reported that Kelley had been under investigation in the past; law enforcement was looking for his client after another man who had been close with Kelley as a child died by suicide.

“My client was devastated to realize that someone he knew as a child may also have been victimized, but he was not emotionally or psychologically capable of taking action at that time,” Conlon said.

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Conlon also criticized the Diocese of Providence for not yet including Kelley’s name on the list of credibly accused priests.

“As the publicly available charging document shows, 12 independent members of a grand jury considered these allegations credible, which raises concerns with a Diocesan list that omits a former priest who is under arrest and detained on such charges,” Conlon said.

Kelley was ordained as a Rhode Island priest in 1968. A full listing of Kelley’s assignments was not available, but according to The Providence Journal archives he had assignments at St. Aidan in Cumberland, St. Agatha in Woonsocket, Our Lady of Consolation in Pawtucket and St. John the Evangelist in North Smithfield in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1992, Kelley resigned after only five months at St. Aidan parish in Cumberland at the request of then-Bishop Louis Gelineau, according to a story in The Journal at the time. The diocese reportedly said “a divisiveness had developed in the parish because of the priest’s leadership style.”

He moved out of Rhode Island in 1993, according to the Diocese of Providence, and later served as an active-duty U.S. Army chaplain.

In 2015, Kelley, then retired, was removed from ministry. The Diocese of Providence announced it publicly at the time, and a short item appeared in the Rhode Island Catholic, but it did not describe the circumstances beyond saying the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, informed the Providence diocese about “concerns.”

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Those concerns can now be revealed: He was “engaging in a relationship with an adult woman not in keeping with a state of life appropriate for a priest,” Maria Aselage, the Diocese of Charleston’s spokeswoman, said in an email this month.

Kelley’s faculties to serve as a priest were revoked in both the Charleston and Providence dioceses. Removing faculties is short of defrocking a priest, but it means they no longer have the necessary permission to function as a priest.

Michael Kieloch, a spokesman for the Diocese of Providence, confirmed that the Edward Kelley who was arrested in South Carolina earlier this year is the same Edward Kelley who was removed from ministry in 2015. But the diocese has not been formally notified about it by prosecutors.

“We obviously take all allegations of abuse seriously,” Kieloch said. “We work closely with law enforcement. We always have.”

Kelley’s name was not included in the diocese’s list of clergy credibly accused of abusing children; Kieloch said it would be added if and when a credible allegation becomes public. But, Kieloch said, someone left the diocese’s compliance office a voicemail in 2019 with a complaint about Kelley. They tried to follow up, but weren’t successful. They immediately forwarded that information to law enforcement, Kieloch said.

The office of Attorney General Peter Neronha is currently reviewing decades of diocesan records under an agreement with church leaders in preparation for a report about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. The report will scrutinize what church leaders knew and did about the abuse, while also trying to find viable criminal cases to bring.

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Another Rhode Island priest, John Petrocelli, was arrested in November 2020 on charges of sexually abusing three boys decades ago. Petrocelli pleaded not guilty and was released on bail.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.