At a California church, a sort of holy war

By Ashley Powers

Los Angeles Times (Mct)

Published: Monday, July 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kelley's adversaries said the dispute has little to do with faith. Instead, in court papers they described him as a tyrant who mishandled church money — allegedly paying a dental bill with parish funds — and who threatened to excommunicate those who crossed him. Kelley denied the allegations.

Several longtime parishioners had begged Anglican authorities to discipline him. Langley Brandt said in an email to a church official that Kelley was prone to "violent temper tantrums" in which "his face goes red, his hands stiffen and become like a skeleton, and he screams at you with eyes budging."

In December, a majority of the parish board asked the priest to leave. He didn't. In April, Anglican officials said they, too, tried to push him out.

Kelley said the bishop who wrote the letter suspending him had no authority to do so, and he continued leading church services.

Kelley's last Sunday Mass in the sanctuary, on May 20, included a reading from the Gospel of John. It began "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."

His rivals did not attend. In court papers, they alleged that Kelley staffed church services with security guards, forcing his adversaries to worship at a condominium complex. (He said that wasn't the case.)

Soon after, they secured a temporary restraining order against the priest. It barred Kelley from acting as St. Mary's rector, pending a hearing on the allegations. Church authorities also asked the court to do what they had been unable to: kick Kelley out for good.

One morning in mid-June, Kelley and about a dozen supporters streamed into a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. He wore black garb, a white collar and a small gold cross on his lapel; one of his supporters clutched white rosary beads.

During a brief hearing, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones dissolved the restraining order. Then she told the parties: Figure out the rest yourselves.

"Who the priest of this church is is not a question for the courts," she said to smiles from the gallery. (None of Kelley's foes had shown up. They were at the church.) The judge's written ruling also said there was "no competent evidence" that Kelley had mishandled church funds.

Kelley's supporters declared victory and rushed to St. Mary's. They ran up to the wrought-iron gate, which had been locked. One woman noticed a sign listing Morello as the "priest-in-charge." "Yuck," she said.

Then the group waited. And waited.

Their smiles disappeared.

Eventually, they learned that their rivals had no plans to let them in.

Keith Kang's wife, Diane, who was just arriving at the church, walked up to the priest.

"You know you're fired, don't you?" she snapped. He looked as if she'd slapped him.

Kang joined Pat Omeirs and other churchgoers in the parish's front office, where they could peek out a window and keep tabs on Kelley's group.

"Father Kelley is a rogue priest," Omeirs said, his hands balled in frustration. "He has no respect for authority in the church."

Kelley believed Jones' ruling allowed him back into St. Mary's. His adversaries countered that the judge had left the matter in the hands of the Anglican officials who want Kelley gone. And her ruling left just enough wiggle room for both sides to keep bickering.

"She never went so far as to say, 'You have to give it back,' " said Kelley's attorney, Alan Dettelbach.

The priest griped that Jones had washed her hands of the matter, "much like Pontius Pilate."

The next day, another court hearing — and the arrival of two LAPD officers at the church, summoned by one of the sides — did little to break the stalemate.

"He's going to rush the gates!" one of Kelley's foes screeched as the priest's group assembled.

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