ALBANY, N.Y. - Before the Rev. James Kelly came to Boys Town in the 1970s, he was urging boys to drop their pants in the principal's office at a New York high school, several former students there say.
One former student alleged in a recent interview that Kelly molested him in the office after telling him to pull down his pants.
"He touched me and told me, 'Don't be afraid. God will forgive you,'" said the 43-year-old Albany man, who agreed to talk on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Bob.
Bob was one of six former students at Keveny Memorial Academy in Cohoes, N.Y., who told in recent interviews with The World-Herald about conversations in Kelly's office that often turned to sex and masturbation.
Another former student, identified only as David, told the Albany Times-Union that Kelly molested him after asking him to drop his pants for a spanking.
One former student remembers being "shocked by the absurdity" when he learned Kelly was going to work at Boys Town.
Three others agreed, saying they recalled laughing at the news. "We all said, 'The poor kids at Boys Town,'" one said.
Kelly was accused in recent lawsuits of molesting two boys when he was at Boys Town from 1975 to 1983. A third man said in an interview with The World-Herald that Kelly molested him while he was at Boys Town. Those lawsuits also allege abuse by Michael Wolf, a former counselor who left Boys Town in 1983 and died in 1990. A third lawsuit alleges abuse only by Wolf.
James Martin Davis, the attorney hired by Boys Town to investigate the allegations raised in the lawsuits, said Boys Town received no indication of sexual misconduct before hiring Kelly.
Kelly denies abusing boys in New York or at Boys Town. He said he spanked boys with their pants down, a practice he said was acceptable at the time.
"I used to tell parents the only way you should discipline a child is to hit him on his bare butt with your bare hand," Kelly said in an interview this week from Carson City, Nev., "I'm in trouble now because I followed the advice I gave parents. . . . There was no fondling. There was no touching of genitals at all."
He acknowledges that he talked to boys about masturbation, but says he brought it up only in asking the youths about possible sins they might confess.
After the first lawsuit was filed, Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard placed Kelly on administrative leave, pending an investigation. Kelly was a prison chaplain in Carson City.
The Albany Diocese investigated a complaint against Kelly in the 1980s, after he returned to New York from Boys Town, and concluded then and in a review last year that the incident did not constitute sexual abuse. As a precaution, though, the diocese sent him for therapy.
Ken Goldfarb, communication director for the Albany Diocese, said the investigation is continuing. He did not know details of the 1980s incident.
"Whatever that event was, it was enough to prompt some sort of evaluation and therapy," Goldfarb said.
Kelly said that complaint related to his spanking kids on their bare bottoms. Both investigations, he said, concluded that "there was nothing sexual in that at all." His therapy, he said, had to do with "anger and rigidity."
The accusations by former students at Keveny and Boys Town have similarities:
• Former students from both places, including some who don't say they were molested, said Kelly asked them uncomfortable, detailed questions about masturbation and other sexual practices.
• Former students from both places say Kelly asked improper questions during confession. Two former Boys Town youths say Kelly molested them during confession.
• Former students from both places recall him encouraging them to pull down their pants.
Those who say they resisted Kelly's encouragement to drop their pants say he never molested them. They spoke only on condition they not be identified.
Some recall him staring at the genitals of naked boys.
"This priest never looked above our waistlines in the 10 minutes that he grilled us," recalled a 45-year-old Albany man. He said Kelly stopped him and his brother as they came out of the shower after baseball practice, the last boys to leave.
A Keveny classmate of that man said another youth stripped to retrieve a dock that was floating away at a church camp on Lake Luzerne, where Kelly often took groups of youths.
Kelly walked up as the naked youth came ashore. "Kelly was talking right to his (penis)," the former student said. "He never took his eyes off."
Kelly said he did not recall such incidents.
The former Keveny students said that when teachers sent them to the principal's office for discipline, Kelly asked uncomfortable questions, then presented manipulative choices.
A baseball player said he had to choose six weeks of detention, missing nearly the whole baseball season, or physical punishment. When he chose spanking, the former student said, he faced another choice: 30 to 40 swats with pants up, fewer with pants down but underwear up and fewer still on his bare bottom.
Another former student got the choice between detention and private confession.
Kelly said he did give boys the choices of punishments and did give fewer swats if they took their pants down. However, he denied presenting confession as a disciplinary choice.
Whether in confession or in a discussion before paddling a youth, the former students said, Kelly asked explicit questions about the boy's sex experience: Had he had sexual relations with a girl? Did he masturbate? How much semen did he ejaculate?
"This guy could talk about the weather, and it ends up at masturbation," one former student said.
Kelly denied talking about sex with youths except in properly counseling them about sexual sins. "They are really using their imaginations," he said. "I would never get that ridiculous."
If a youth told him that he masturbated, Kelly said, "I would tell him he had to stop."
Jim Zareski of Malta, N.Y., a 1974 Keveny graduate, remembers that Kelly paddled him for smoking. Told about the choices other students recalled, Zareski said, "I don't remember that. I know my pants stayed up."
Richard Litwa, who taught math at Keveny, remembers that Kelly and a dean of discipline handled corporal punishment, but he did not notice or hear about any improper behavior.
"I have the highest regard for him," Litwa said.
Several former Boys Town residents also praised Kelly and said they doubted the accusations.
One Keveny student who never went to the office for discipline said Kelly summoned him anyway. He and another student faced the same questions about sex, under the guise of a sex-education lecture.
"I can only liken it to foreplay," the former student said. He said he answered every question by saying he didn't know. "I remember thinking, 'If this guy touches me, I'm going to punch him in the face, make a break for my door and tell my father.'"
However, he didn't tell his parents. None of the former students interviewed did.
Students talked and joked among themselves and gave Kelly insulting nicknames, but those who were interviewed didn't tell their parents, police or church authorities.
Bob still hasn't told his parents or his wife.
As a freshman at Keveny, Bob was summoned to the office in October and told that the principal interviewed all freshmen. Kelly closed the door, Bob said, and started by asking routine questions about his family and why he came to Keveny.
Then, Bob said, Kelly asked if the youth was sexually active. "He asked me, when I go to the bathroom, do I play with myself?"
The second time he was called to the office, he said, Kelly told him to pull down his pants and show how he touched himself when he went to the bathroom.
Then Kelly fondled the youth's genitals, Bob said. He estimates he was molested similarly on eight or nine occasions.
Bob was sure no one would believe him if he told. "In '73 I think it was a different world," Bob said. "Priests were priests, and you respected them."
As Bob grew up, he had difficulty with relationships and had a mental breakdown.
He was shocked to read news reports this year about Kelly being accused of abuse in the suits against Boys Town. "I thought he was dead," Bob said
Bob finally told his story to a lawyer, John Aretakis, who has several clients alleging abuse by priests, but has not filed suit.
"I've got some relief that I've told somebody."
Kelly said the accusations stemming from his time at Boys Town have ended his career. "Every priest is scared to death that somebody from his past is going to bring something up for money."
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