[MetroActive News&Issues]

[ Sonoma County | MetroActive Central | Archives ]


[whitespace] Sister Jane Kelly Michael Amsler

Meet the feisty nun who rocked the Diocese of Santa Rosa

By Janet Wells

SISTER JANE KELLY is a most unlikely whistle blower. With her flowered skirt, simple blouse, white huaraches, and wedding finger sporting a ring with a cross stamped into the gold, she looks every inch the gentle nun. She's a bespectacled woman with a halo of short, wavy, gray hair who can be found outside in the heat of Ukiah's blistering summer watering the flowers at St. Mary of the Angels School. But don't be fooled by appearances.

Sister Kelly also ripped the lid off the Santa Rosa Diocese recently, opening the local Catholic administration to national scrutiny in the face of a far-flung scandal involving allegations of embezzlement, sexual misconduct, and coverups.

In the wake of Kelly's unrelenting questions, outraged letters, and feisty opinions, the powerful have fallen far: Bishop Patrick Ziemann resigned in July, and the Santa Rosa police are investigating him for charges of criminal sexual misconduct involving another diocese priest, Jorge Hume Salas. Salas himself is under a black cloud, after admitting to stealing from the St. Mary's parish collection. The latest casualty is Monsignor Thomas Keys, who resigned two weeks ago as vicar general, the No. 2 position in a diocese that ranges over six Northern California counties, ranging from Petaluma to the Oregon border.

And now the diocese itself is under fire, facing charges from Salas of defamation and infliction of emotional distress, as well as longtime allegations of financial impropriety involving the use of church donations to settle sexual misconduct cases.

To some, Kelly is little more than a troublesome gossip, used by the diocese as a mouthpiece to blab about a priest and deflect attention from the deeper questions involving the bishop and the diocese.

But to far more people she is a hero, a brave beacon willing to stand up to the male-dominated Catholic church hierarchy.

"For this lady to do what's she's done is mind-boggling," says Don Hoard, whose son is one of several local youths who were sexually molested by a local priest in a scandal that rocked the diocese a couple of years ago. "If you don't have a Catholic background, I don't think you can conceive of the amount of courage it took."

Or, as Tanya Brannan of the Purple Berets says, "Sister Jane Kelly for bishop!"

AT AGE 17, while a Catholic schoolgirl in Oakland, Kelly decided to enter the Convent of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in San Francisco. Now 69, Kelly just celebrated her golden anniversary in the church, with 26 of those years as a nun in the Ukiah parish.

Kelly spent her years quietly working with students at St. Mary of the Angels school and the Plowshares Community Dining Room, which offers food services, as well as health and psychiatric counseling to the poor and homeless in Ukiah.

Kelly admits that she heard stories over the years about local priests having sex with young boys, even before the hundreds of cases nationwide exploded onto newspaper headlines and court dockets in the early 1990s. But that was before the era of California's mandatory reporting laws, which now requires anyone--including clergy--with information about child sexual abuse to report it to law enforcement officials. That law was passed two years ago in the wake of the child molestation cases in Santa Rosa.

It wasn't until a young Costa Rican, Jorge Hume Salas, came on the scene that Sister Kelly started down the path of rabble-rouser. In 1992, Bishop Ziemann asked Kelly to be Salas' supervisor while he trained for the priesthood.

"I said, 'No, I don't understand Spanish, and I don't know how much English he understands,'" recalls Kelly, sitting in her Ukiah office, surrounded by student artwork and shelves of Catholic educational videos and religious prints. "[Ziemann] pressed me, so I did. Then I began to see things happening."

While most men training for the priesthood have at least four years of graduate-level schooling, Salas had no records of theological or seminary study, Kelly says, adding that Salas did not undergo the rigid psychological screening for would-be priests.

Kelly was never sure how much Salas understood during their weekly sessions to discuss his spiritual journey. Nevertheless, he was ordained to the priesthood in a practically unheard-of 15 months.

Once a priest, Salas suddenly had an expensive new car with custom license plates, a personal computer, and a TV set, notes Kelly. She says she heard from parishioners unhappy that the new priest apparently was profiteering from his position, demanding a minimum payment of $20 for himself to perform baptisms, confirmations, and weddings, and then allegedly failing to report the income. There were allegations that he had young men in his room overnight and complaints from several parishioners of sexual molestation, Kelly says.

Pastor Hans Ruygt and Bishop Ziemann confronted Salas about the alleged sexual misconduct, says Kelly. In 1996, when Kelly and Ruygt noticed that money was missing from the parish collections, and suspected it was going toward Salas' lavish purchases, the two set up a sting.

"Jorge was caught in the act," Kelly says. "Hans [Ruygt] had a policeman at the rectory to arrest Jorge. He begged and cried, so Hans called Bishop [Ziemann], who came up and said we couldn't prosecute because there wasn't enough evidence."

In a letter to the bishop that August, Kelly asked that Salas make public restitution for his alleged theft, which she estimates at $10,000 from her parish alone. "Bishop," the letter said, "I believe that Jorge is a pathological liar and was ordained under false pretenses."

The bishop's reply? To let Salas fade from view for almost two years, then quietly reassign him to St. John's parish in Napa, she says. Aghast, Kelly admonished the bishop in a March 1998 letter. "Appointing Jorge to another parish is only perpetuating the real possibility of repeating his scandalous actions," she wrote. "I am still of the opinion that Jorge is a 'con artist' and will steal again if he has not already done so."

Indeed, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Brian Davis says that as part of their criminal investigation, they are looking into allegations against Salas involving theft and sexual misconduct in the Napa parish. Salas has not been charged of any crime.

Salas' transfer was the last straw, Kelly says.

"For two and a half years I have had to live with this. I tried to get him removed," she says. "I lost weight, I couldn't sleep."

Sister Jane Kelly Michael Amsler

No quarter: Sister Jane Kelly is taking on the Diocese of Santa Rosa after charging that the church is using school funds to pay off settlements stemming from sexual misconduct cases involving North Coast priests.

SALAS WASN'T the only priest on Kelly's mind. She thought of Gary Timmons, who is serving an eight-year jail sentence for repeated sexual abuse of boys in the Diocese of Santa Rosa. Four other local priests have been publicly implicated in similar sordid cases.

"If Gary Timmons had been prosecuted 20 years ago, how many people would not have been hurt?" Kelly wonders.

"We're all human, we're all weak, we all give in sometimes to temptation," she says. "The biggest sin is not necessarily in the action of a priest who is a pedophile, stealing money, or having sex with women. The biggest sin is that it was covered up, that it was allowed to go on."

In January, Kelly, frustrated by the lack of response from diocese officials, contacted a local reporter. "It was the hardest, scariest decision I made in my life," she says. "I couldn't live with my conscience if I didn't."

Kelly says that at the time, she knew nothing of Ziemann's sexual relationship with Salas, although she suspected that the priest "had something on the bishop."

The bishop wasn't ensnared by the scandal until Salas dropped a bomb this summer in the form of a lawsuit. Months of secret talks between attorneys for the diocese and Salas had failed, and, in July, Salas filed a complaint in Sonoma County Superior Court charging that Ziemann forced sexual favors in exchange for silence about the theft.

The lawsuit, which misspells the bishop's name throughout, is full of salacious claims, with Salas accusing Ziemann of arranging repeated--and unwanted--sexual encounters. One particularly bizarre allegation describes a 1996 visit Ziemann made to St. Louis, where Salas was undergoing two weeks of psychological evaluation following the discovery of his embezzlement from St. Mary's.

"Zeimann forced Salas to engage in sexual activity with him at the hotel where Zeimann was staying (after which Zeimann bought him an ice cream and tucked $80 in Salas' pocket despite Salas' attempts to refuse it)," the lawsuit charges.

Salas alleges in the suit that the sexual harassment started just after he was removed from St. Mary's for taking collection funds.

"Zeimann summoned Salas to his home under the pretense to talk about how Salas was feeling," the suit alleges. "During this private meeting Zeimann grabbed Salas and began to kiss him, to remove his clothes and to fondle his genitals. When Salas told Zeimann to stop and asked him what he was doing Zeimann told him that it was not wrong and that he should just relax because, he said, 'We are brothers.'"

Days after the lawsuit was filed, Ziemann resigned, first denying all charges, then, one day later, admitting to a consensual sexual relationship with Salas. Ziemann and Salas both remain in seclusion, refusing to grant interviews. Just after Ziemann's resignation, his attorney, Joseph Piasta, issued a statement lambasting Salas' allegations as "motivated solely out of greed."

"It is unfortunate that Father Salas and his attorneys are now using this consensual relationship as a weapon against Bishop Ziemann and the Diocese," Piasta said in the statement. "We are confident that the Bishop will be fully exonerated."

Salas' attorney, Irma Cordova, proffers an interesting twist in defending her client: Kelly, she says, simply was a pawn in the diocese's plan. "Although Sister Jane Kelly gets credit for bringing this out into the open, the diocese actually orchestrated this," Cordova says.

"Sister Kelly had never in the past been permitted by the bishop to even speak of this. She may have had private grumblings about it, but either through action or inaction, the bishop allowed her to speak to the press," Cordova says. "The diocese and the bishop allowed this information to go out to smear Father Jorge and put the kibosh on his complaining."

While the headlines have focused on Salas' allegation of sexual coercion, the lawsuit also charges the diocese with defamation of character "because of the [church's] allegations that [Salas] molested three men," Cordova says.

"These allegations apparently were made back in 1996 . . . but it's not until 1999, after we have gone through five months of negotiations and we are telling [the diocese] that they need to do something, that they decide they are going to make it public and smear Father Jorge. And they use Sister Jane Kelly to do it."

"These allegations of molestation were never proven," Cordova adds. "My client denies any of this."


A look at radical Catholic reform solutions


KELLY IS CRITICAL of Salas, but she reserves her harshest words for Ziemann and former Vicar General Keys, for perpetuating what seems to be the Church's entrenched code of collusion regarding priestly misconduct.

"For someone like the bishop, the shepherd of the flock, to allow a wolf into the sheep's fold, then when the wolf starts to devour the lambs, he takes the wolf and puts it into another sheepfold to do the same thing . . . ," Kelly's voice trails off, then becomes indignant.

"The scandal lies with a bishop or archbishop who would cover up the misconduct of the priest."

Attorney Piasta refutes the idea of a coverup conspiracy. "It's not true," he says. Salas was transferred to another parish as part of the Church's tenet of forgiveness. "For priests who have made a mistake, if they go through the right rehabilitation," Piasta says, "they can have a second chance if they show that they can perform."

Kelly says that last fall she revealed her concerns about Salas to Keys, who assured her that he would personally talk to the bishop. "He had no intention of doing so," she concluded after waiting three weeks for a response.

"It's a male chauvinistic denial hierarchy," she says. "They feel they are above the law."

IN AN AUG. 6 letter to San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, who has taken over temporary stewardship of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Kelly complained about Keys remaining in the post of vicar general, in charge of the diocese's finances.

"Tom Keys . . . seems to have no conscience regarding the victims of the priests who have sexually abused boys, young men and women; not to mention those priests who have stolen large sums of money from church collections," she wrote. "Tom Keys would settle with the injured parties so that they would not prosecute."

Keys' resignation Aug. 25 seemed to vindicate Kelly's charges, while intensifying speculation that diocese money was the funding source to settle local cases involving child and adult sexual abuse.

Mirroring church officials nationwide, Keys and other Diocese of Santa Rosa administrators have repeatedly denied that operating funds and parishioner donations were ever used to cover the local share of what some experts estimate to be $1 billion in sexual misconduct settlements nationwide.

Kelly scoffs at the denials. "Any money in the diocese is church money," she says.

In an astounding admission two weeks ago, Keys' replacement, Monsignor John Brenkle of St. Helena Church in Napa, agreed.

In his first day on the job, Brenkle stated in published reports that the diocese is in a financial crisis, in part because of cash outlays to settle sexual misconduct cases involving priests.

Keys remains as chief executive officer of the National Scrip Center, the $450 million annual program for funding church and other non-profit programs. A clearing-house for merchandise gift certificates bought at discounted prices, Santa Rosa's scrip program is the largest such money-making plan in the country, and is legally separate from the diocese. However, most of the center's board members are affiliated with the diocese. Rumors continue to swirl that scrip money has also been used to cover settlements, although diocese officials have continued to deny that. Keys did not return calls for comment.

REMOVED from the inner turmoil of the diocese, Sister Kelly is busy in Ukiah preparing for the new school year at St. Mary's. Popping out of her office to offer a hug to returning students and volunteers, she comes back in to confide her prediction that the scandal will only deepen with the conclusion of the Santa Rosa Police Department's criminal investigation, now in its third month.

But in the end, she adds, forcing the diocese into the glare of the spotlight is a "very good thing."

"Evil survives because good people don't speak out," she says. "Like anything that is painful, like lancing a boil, once you get all that poison out, we can start healing."

[ Sonoma County | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

From the September 9-15, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.