Matt C. Abbott
Accused Minnesota priest speaks out, pleads for justice
By Matt C. Abbott
October 4, 2018
This is a follow-up column to my Sept. 25 column
on the case of Father William C. Graham, which contains the following news item from Minnesota Lawyer
In a man-bites-dog case with few if any precise corollaries, a Roman Catholic priest designated as 'credibly accused' of sexual misconduct by the Diocese of Duluth just last April has successfully sued the man who made the allegations against him.
After a three-day trial before 6th Judicial District Court Judge Theresa Neo, an eight-member jury awarded the Rev. William Graham $13,500 to compensate him for the $500 monthly stipend he did not receive during the period from May 2016, when he was placed on administrative leave from his job as parish priest at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Duluth, to August 2018, when the trial was held.
In answers to questions listed on a special verdict form, the jury said that Graham's accuser, former Duluth police officer T. J. Davis, Jr., 'intentionally interfered' with Graham's employment and, further, that his actions were not justified.
Father Graham subsequently contacted me by email and provided me with the following statement:
My false accusation came in 2016, the Year of Mercy. I have known neither mercy nor compassion from those in authority in our Minnesota Church, but I pray that the Vatican will correct what they can of the injustice. Should that fail, I will continue to pray day by day for my bishop, and will be glad finally to meet God with easy confidence, knowing that I ministered in the Church as the local bishop's good servant, but first as a minister of the eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.
Father Graham's attorney, Michael Puklich, provided me with the following statement by email (slightly edited):
It seems as though we are entering a time when future generations will look back at and say, 'What were they thinking?' Facts are given less weight than an accusation, credibility is determined by identifying with a particular group, and conclusions are drawn not on what is just and right, but on what is convenient or best for 'your side.'
In Father Graham's case, we proved a negative: the assault he was accused of did not happen. Not everybody seems to grasp that. In Father Graham's case we were not defending a claim. In those cases you simply have to prove the other side did not meet their burden. Here, we had the burden of proof and we met it. The accuser's attorneys seem to argue that because we did not prevail on the 'intentional infliction of emotional distress' (IIED) claim, somehow the verdict split. That is non-sequitur nonsense.
The only way we could prove the tortious interference claim, which we won, was to establish that the accusations were false. That is it, plain and simple. The IIED claim required we prove the accuser's allegations were so beyond the bounds of decency that they should never be accepted in a civilized society. The accuser's psychologist testified at trial that the accuser never wanted to bring the claim and only did so because he felt forced to do so by his wife and attorneys.
That piece of evidence alone is probably enough in most jurors' minds to give the accuser a pass for the IIED claim, but it has nothing to do with transforming the allegations they determined to be false into the truth. I would be very surprised if anybody sitting in that courtroom thought the accuser was credible. He was not.
I am a practicing Catholic and I find the Church's handling of this matter puzzling. It is done in secret. We still do not know how the Church made its decision. What I do know is that the Church made its decision regarding Father Graham before watching the witnesses testify under oath in a trial. We spent years looking at documents, talking to witnesses, examining Father Graham and examining the claims made against him.
The trial was public and the Church was invited to attend. The Church's decision-makers chose not to watch. This was not a circus, a play or concert. This was a trial about whether the accuser was telling the truth. And all we sought was the truth. We never asked for anything other than for the accuser to simply drop it, but he chose to proceed and he lost. He lost not because of some legal quirk or clever lawyering; he lost because he was not telling the truth. And now an innocent man has been exonerated, but that doesn't seem to matter. When did we get to the point where a movement became more important than the truth?
Father Graham's canon lawyer, Deacon Jerry Jorgensen, provided me with the following statement by email (slightly edited):
Father Graham's bishop continues to restrict/prohibit active ministry on the part of Father Graham. There has been no ecclesiastical penal or criminal process to address the accusations made against Father Graham. After 17 months, Father Graham's bishop finally did what should have happened within the first two to three months after the accusations were made, namely, he informed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) about the accusations against Father Graham, including the results of a preliminary or initial limited investigation into the accusations that he had conducted, and asked for directions on whether to proceed with a penal or criminal process and which process to use (judicial or administrative) or whether to dismiss the accusations as unfounded and return Father Graham to active ministry.
In April 2018, Father Graham's bishop informed him and me, as Father Graham's ecclesiastical/canon lawyer, that he had received a response from the CDF but declined to share the response with Father Graham or myself. This is a prime example of the secrecy or lack of transparency to which Mr. Puklich refers. The bishop said that the CDF instructed him to impose a penal precept on Father Graham restricting his priestly ministry for one year, but the bishop did not say and will not say what the CDF directed him to do in regard to an ecclesiastical criminal process.
Also, in regard to secrecy, neither Father Graham nor I know what the bishop told the CDF, what information the bishop sent the CDF, what decision the CDF made and how they made their decision, what the CDF told the bishop, and how the bishop made his decision to not proceed with an ecclesiastical criminal process. Thus, there has been no chance for Father Graham to engage in an ecclesiastical process to discover the truth of the accusations made against him, to exercise his rights in an ecclesiastical legal process, and to reach a formal ecclesiastical decision with formal consequences, that is, returned to active ministry, permanently restricted or prohibited from active ministry, or dismissed from the clerical state.
Father Graham's bishop refuses to give any weight to the civil legal process in which Father Graham proved the accusations against him were false – a process that is more transparent than any ecclesiastical process, a process in which the finders of fact were eight laypersons (which is the process that many Catholics and even several bishops have been calling for in light of the current clergy sexual abuse crisis), and a process that is as thorough, if not more thorough, than any ecclesiastical criminal process.
On Aug. 24, the Diocese of Duluth released the following statement in response to Father Graham's court case (slightly edited):
The diocese was not a party to this lawsuit, which was commenced by Father William Graham against a private citizen. The diocese's commitment is to the safety of children. In that vein, after a thorough and deliberate process, Father Graham was determined to have been credibly accused of abusing a minor, and accordingly has been removed from ministry. Bishop Sirba stands by that decision, which has been affirmed by the Vatican. The judge in the case ruled that the diocese did not have to provide the documents of its internal investigation to the court. We continue to pray for all involved.
Background on internal investigation:
After first reporting the accusation against Father Graham to civil authorities, the diocese immediately placed him on administrative leave and then conducted its own internal investigation into the accusation against him. The investigation was conducted by an outside, experienced, independent investigator who reported his findings to the diocese's review board.
The review board, made up of 10 individuals who are experienced in social work, psychology, education, law, law enforcement, and medicine, reviewed the investigator's report and supporting detail, met with and questioned extensively the independent investigator, and then made its unanimous recommendation to Bishop Sirba for his consideration.
The consensus was that there existed sufficient credible evidence to substantiate the allegation or support the conclusion that the allegation could be substantiated. In accordance with Church law, the bishop then contacted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican and obtained its guidance concerning Father Graham. As a result, Bishop Sirba removed Father Graham from public ministry. This removal remains in effect.
The Diocese of Duluth is committed to offering assistance to anyone who has been a victim of sexual misconduct on the part of clergy and strongly encourages anyone who has been a victim of sexual abuse to report such abuse to the civil authorities and to the Diocese of Duluth.
© Matt C. Abbott
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