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Duluth priest fights removal

Rev. William Graham wants to return to St. Michael’s, following a jury award of $13,500 in the case where he sued the man who accused him of child sexual abuse. Photo from William Graham1 / 2
Mike Finnegan, attorney for T.J. Davis (right) in the Duluth diocese sexual abuse trial, introduces his client and Davis's wife Jody during a press conference in the Holiday Center Friday on Aug.24. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 2

DULUTH -- A Duluth jury last summer awarded $13,500 to the Rev. William Graham after he sued the man who came forward to accuse him of child sexual abuse.

Graham, a 68-year-old longtime priest, author and educator, believes he was vindicated by the verdict and would like to get back to work.

“I want to reclaim my life,” he said recently. “I want to get back to St. Michael’s.”

A return to the Lakeside church, however, seems unlikely.

“We don’t foresee a return to ministry,” said Deacon Kyle Eller, spokesman for the Diocese of Duluth. “The decision to remove him from public ministry is complete, and the bishop stands by his decision.”

Graham’s current situation — barred from publicly ministry but continuing to collect his salary and benefits as he awaits further action from the Vatican — is the result of complicated tangle of civil, bankruptcy and canon law.

Graham prevailed in State District Court on a claim of interference with contractual duties, though the jury said accuser Terrence Jerome Davis Jr. did not intentionally inflict emotional distress on the priest. That verdict may still be appealed, an attorney for Davis said.

But the underlying accusations will almost certainly never be independently litigated, having been consolidated with 124 other abuse claims in the Diocese of Duluth’s ongoing bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, the diocese conducted its own investigation, resulting in a finding that Graham had been “credibly accused” and warranting his removal. His appeals are continuing in the Catholic Church’s internal legal system.

Graham, who told the News Tribune he has left Duluth and is “living in exile,” said he has confidence that he will achieve justice in the church’s process.

“This came just moments before I was to celebrate my 40th anniversary as a priest,” Graham said, “and this is the only accusation that has ever been leveled against me.”

Verdict stands

Mike Bryant, a St. Cloud attorney representing Davis, said he and his client stand by their accusations. A suit filed in May 2016, just days before the deadline to bring claims in the diocese’s bankruptcy, alleged that Graham abused Davis on at least three occasions in the 1970s, when Davis was approximately 15 years old.

Bryant said there is little doubt that Davis, a former Duluth police officer, interfered with Graham’s ability to be a priest; Graham was clearly stripped of his duties as a result of the allegations. While Bryant contended at trial that Graham had no specific contract that was violated, the jury did award him $500 for each month he was on leave.

But jurors declined to award the priest any damages for emotional distress, answering “no” to the question: "Was the conduct of Terrance Jerome Davis Jr. so extreme and outrageous that it passed the boundaries of decency and was utterly intolerable to a civilized community?"

“I think that any reading of that indicates that the jury didn't buy most of Graham’s case,” Bryant said. “It’s just that they decided that he'd lost something because he was knocked out as a priest.”

Sixth Judicial District Judge Theresa Neo last month denied a motion from Bryant to reverse the verdict in Davis’ favor or order a new trial. Neo said there was “ample evidence” presented at trial that Graham had an employment relationship, which was “negatively impacted and altered by defendant’s allegations against plaintiff, to the point of tortious interference.”

“Overall, it was well within the purview of the jury to weigh the evidence and reach and appropriate conclusion; it is not the place of this court to disturb such a credibility determination when there is sufficient evidence to support the jury’s decision,” the judge wrote.

Bryant said he wasn’t surprised Neo left the verdict in place; it’s uncommon for judges to reverse juries. Describing the verdict as a “mixed bag,” he said he may still ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals for review.

But Mic Puklich, an attorney for Graham, vehemently defended the verdict as a win for his client in a rare case of a priest using the legal system to fight back against abuse allegations.

“I’ve looked at thousands of documents,” he said. “I’ve examined the case from every possible angle it can be looked at, not only as a lawyer but as a person who is looking at defending someone who is accused of such horrible acts. And he didn’t do it. It’s not so much the sterile legal analysis that gets applied to it — it’s the fact that he didn’t do it. The facts are clear he didn’t do it.”

Church process continues

The civil court verdict has no impact on the church’s review of the allegations, Eller said, calling the processes “distinct, separate and independent of each other.”

Graham was placed on administrative leave immediately after the allegations surfaced in the May 2016 lawsuit. He remained in that status until this past August, just weeks before the trial, when the diocese announced Graham was being removed from public ministry after an investigation determined that he was "credibly accused."

“The decision was the result of the church’s own thorough process, which included an independent professional investigation, a unanimous recommendation of the diocesan review board, the bishop’s consideration of and acceptance of that recommendation, and consultation with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” Eller said.

“Father Graham had and exercised a right to defense in the process, including representation in both civil and canon law. It is not a decision that was made lightly or casually.”

Eller said Graham has no remaining appeals on his ability to minister publicly but is appealing, to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, his removal as pastor at St. Michael’s.

Deacon Jerry Jorgensen of the Diocese of Dubuque, Iowa, is serving as Graham’s canon lawyer. He said he has been frustrated by the slow progress of the case, hoping to get Graham before an ecclesiastical court, which would hold a trial similar to a criminal prosecution.

Jorgensen said he’s still holding out hope of Graham getting back to St. Michael’s.

“I think if we can get the ecclesiastical process over with, and the ecclesiastical process comes up with the same result as the civil process, then I think yes,” he could be reinstated, Jorgensen said.

Graham also criticized the process as being “cloaked in secrecy,” noting he has been unable to learn the identities of the review board members who made the recommendation.

But Eller said that process is guided by a charter under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Confidentiality, he said, provides board members the opportunity to provide “honest, unbiased, and in many cases expert assessment of the accusation” without outside influence.

Eller said the 10 lay people who make up review board have experience in social work, psychology, education, religious and civil law, law enforcement and medicine.

“The church’s ‘zero tolerance’ policies are ones Father Graham agreed to abide by as part of his ministry, as do other ministers, employees, and volunteers of the church,” he said. “They are in place to protect the right of anyone who has been a victim of sexual misconduct in the church to come forward confident the church will hear them and take them seriously as well as to protect the rights of those accused.”