What happens when a priest is falsely accused of sexual abuse

Father Gary Graf, pastor of St. Procopius-Providence of God Parish in Chicago, is seen at a Feb. 12, 2018, news conference announcing a Lenten fast by priests and religious brothers and sisters to show support for those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

Until last year, online search results for the Rev. Gary Graf would include stories about his liver donation to a parishioner, his scaling a border wall so he could understand more intimately the experiences of his immigrant parishioners and a hunger strike he staged to draw attention to the plight of Dreamers.

Today, however, the top results relate to Father Graf’s removal from ministry last August following an accusation that he inappropriately touched a minor. That allegation prompted the Archdiocese of Chicago to remove Father Graf from ministry and contact civil authorities, setting off multiple rounds of investigations—including a criminal trial—that ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing.

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As Holy Week begins, Father Graf is back ministering, but his story illustrates the challenges facing priests who are falsely accused at a time when hundreds of true stories of horrific abuse dominate the news.

Last May, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that three parishes in the city’s West Side would merge into one, José Luis Sánchez del Río Church. Father Graf, who has spent much of his priestly career in Hispanic parishes, was later appointed pastor, in part because of his previous experience leading parishes through mergers. He knew the challenges that accompany such endeavors, especially when it comes to the uncertainty parishioners feel over such moves, and so he was eager to get to work.

Father Graf’s story illustrates the challenges facing priests who are falsely accused at a time when hundreds of true stories of horrific abuse dominate the news.

But just a few weeks after he arrived at the parish, which includes a church where he ministered more than three decades earlier, he received a call from the archdiocese. An allegation of misconduct involving a minor had been made against him.

Then on Aug. 25, parishioners received a letter from Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, informing them that Father Graf had been placed on leave “pending the outcome of an investigation into an allegation of code of conduct violations involving a minor.” Father Graf could have no contact with church officials, including other priests, and he would need to retain his own legal counsel.

The accuser, a 17-year-old who worked part-time at one of the three churches in the parish, told WGN on Aug. 27 that Father Graf had touched his shoulder and back, asked him if he needed a ride home from work and then offered him a free car. The accuser also said the church receptionist had called him to say the priest found him attractive.

In an interview with America on April 11, Father Graf said parishioners routinely inform him about all sorts of items—cars, furniture, bicycles—that they want to give away, asking him if he knows anyone who might be in need. When he learned about an old used car that someone was trying to give away, he said, he asked the part-time employee if he would be interested in it. During the conversation, Father Graf said, he placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder, something he says he does regularly when talking to people.

Father Graf said he understood the need to take allegations seriously and then to conduct independent investigations.

He added that he regularly makes sure that staff and volunteers have rides home when meetings or shifts end.

As for the call from the receptionist, Father Graf said it never happened. During a criminal trial, the receptionist herself denied ever making the call.

As the investigations wore on, Father Graf said, the silence haunted him.

“The silence, I didn’t know what that meant. You don’t know if there are other accusations,” he said. “What else are they hearing?”

Still, he said he understood the need to take allegations seriously and then to conduct independent investigations.

“We have no one to blame but ourselves because we did it wrong for years,” he said. “Instead of believing the child in our midst, which is most important, we...listened to the priest.”

“We have no one to blame but ourselves because we did it wrong for years. Instead of believing the child in our midst, which is most important, we...listened to the priest.”

Eventually, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services determined the allegation was not credible. Chicago police conducted their own investigation and decided to bring charges.

After consulting a lawyer, who took the case pro bono, Father Graf said, he paid for a polygraph test, which he says showed he was not lying about the allegations. He said the trial was challenging, but parishioners showed up to support him, and a judge ruled in January that he was not guilty. With two civil investigations complete, the archdiocese then conducted its own investigation. Earlier this month, it determined the allegation was not credible. After meeting with the accuser and his family, the cardinal told Father Graf that he would return to ministry.

Experts say precise figures related to the number of U.S. priests falsely accused of abuse are not available. But the annual report published by the National Review Board, the body that advises U.S. bishops on child sex abuse, suggests that while false accusations are rare, they do happen. The 2017 report, for example, shows that investigations of 182 allegations of abuse that were made before July 1, 2016, deemed 107 of them credible and another 60 in need of more investigation. But 13 were deemed “unsubstantiated” and two were found to be “obviously false.”

“False claims of sexual abuse are remarkably low,” Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told America.

According to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, U.S. dioceses “are to report an allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is a minor to the public authorities.” In Chicago, allegations are reported to civil authorities and an internal investigation occurs after civil authorities release their findings.

“False claims of sexual abuse are remarkably low,” Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told America. “That is not to say they don’t happen, as [Father Graf’s] case illustrates. But most people coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse are telling the truth.”

Mr. Hiner said that while SNAP recognizes the “terrible situation” in which falsely accused priests find themselves, it is a sign of hope that civil investigations are capable of unearthing the truth. He added that SNAP “spend[s] our energy focusing on victims.”

Priests falsely accused of abuse are often reinstated to ministry, though their paths differ and challenges sometimes remain.

Father Graf is eager “to be with God’s people again and listen to them, walk with them, accompany them.”

Last year, Msgr. Edward Sacks, a priest in Pennsylvania, was reinstated after being “cleared by an independent investigation” that found “no abuse of any kind occurred, and that it was an erroneous allegation,” according to the Diocese of Allentown.

In 2016, a South Dakota priest, the Rev. Joseph T. Forcelle, was removed from ministry for two months after an allegation was leveled against him in Minnesota. When law enforcement declined to press charges, church officials conducted their own investigation. Based on those findings, the diocesan review board “concluded that the facts asserted do not substantiate this allegation,” and Father Forcelle was returned to ministry.

And a high-profile case involving a priest accused of abuse engulfed the Saint Louis area beginning in 2013. A priest of the archdiocese, originally from China, the Rev. Joseph Jiang became close to a Catholic family, sharing meals, occasionally spending nights at their home and at one point offering to buy a house they could rent while saving for a down payment. Shortly after he realized he could not afford a home and told the family, an allegation that he sexually abused one of the daughters was leveled against him. Later, another family made an allegation that Father Jiang abused their son. Eventually, the priest was cleared of abuse—he also received an apology from SNAP over statements that he said defamed him—and he was returned to ministry. But last year, after the archbishop assigned Father Jiang to a parish that is also home to a school, a number of parents expressed concern and the assignment was withdrawn.

“Although false accusations are terrible, they can’t possibly compare with being victimized, being sexually assaulted and molested, especially by a priest,” Father Graf said.

The attorney representing Father Jiang told Saint Louis Magazine that while most allegations of abuse against priests are found to be credible, that “doesn’t mean you can just falsely accuse a priest and there be no consequences, because once the accusation is made, it cannot be unmade.”

“When the case gets dismissed,” Paul D’Agrosa continued, “people say, ‘He had a smart lawyer.’ And if you go to trial and a jury finds you not guilty, it’s ‘He beat the system.’ That’s what angers me about the second case. Not the first. Father Jiang bears some responsibility for that. He was naïve—the days are gone when a priest sleeps in a home!”

Father Graf stood at the altar with Cardinal Cupich on Tuesday, concelebrating the Chrism Mass, and parishioners have said they are happy he is returning to work. He said that instead of focusing on his experience during the past few months, he is eager “to be with God’s people again and listen to them, walk with them, accompany them.”

Despite the lengthy investigations and the uncertainty he felt as the weeks turned into months, Father Graf said he had faith in the system and that he understood the need for a thorough investigation that included not being in touch with church officials. “In the past, we did not put the child first,” he said. “They didn’t listen to the child and pull the priest out of ministry and find out what was going on. So I’m elated that we’re at this point. I lived through it, and it was very, very, excruciating. And yet it’s the way it’s got to be.”

In a letter to parishioners announcing Father Graf’s return to ministry, Cardinal Cupich thanked them for their “great patience as each jurisdiction has completed its process.” He pointed to archdiocesan policies that “call us to do everything possible to restore the good name of priests when the process has determined the allegations to be unfounded. This, too, is a matter of justice.”

Some priests who have been cleared following allegations of abuse have sued their accusers in an effort to help restore their reputations—stories about allegations often have longer digital shadows than those that exonerate—but Father Graf said he has no plans for that.

Instead, he said the focus should be on victims of sexual abuse.

“Although false accusations are terrible, they can’t possibly compare with being victimized, being sexually assaulted and molested, especially by a priest,” Father Graf said. “It’s a terrible, terrible sin that has devastated the church because it devastated the most important people in our church, which are children. And in the past, we did not put the child first.”

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Stephen de Weger
7 months ago

False accusations really make my blood boil. This is a good article about such. What I am always interested in as a researcher of clergy sexual misconduct, is why people make such false accusations? Yes, there's the money but often there's a lot of psychological trauma happening in the accuser. We never hear about that and it would help if we could.

One true false accusation sets the cause of defending sexual abuse victims back years. Many leap on such stories and try to then say these must happen more often than we think. Please read the whole article - it discusses this aspect as well.

Baron Corvo
7 months ago

If you are what you claim to be, a "...researcher of clergy sexual misconduct," then you must be aware that the law firm from Minneapolis run by the fallen-away Catholic liar named Anderson has been behind the bankruptcies of multiple dioceses thanks to his spurious and often proven false accusations against long-dead clergy by using the universally discredited and proven nonsense use of "hidden memory syndrome" wherein loser, drunken 60-something South Side Chicagoans suddenly "remember" being "touched by Father McGillicuddy" at the same time they realize they have made ZERO financial plans for their retirement.

This same Lutheran 'lawyer' is the bankroll that keeps the liars at the "SNAP" organization operating with his ill-gotten profits from his diocesan bankruptcy pyramid scam "law firm."

The thought that AMERICA magazine would even quote liars from this corrupt band of thieves at "SNAP" shows how low AMERICA has gone for material in their silly stories.

You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Roland Greystoke
7 months ago

The liberal mainstream media buries the story. But I find them and post them on my Twitter feed along with the HUGE amount of current stories of teachers and other school employees who get arrested for sexually molesting children.

Jennifer Shangraw
7 months ago

In my diocese, there are a number of priests who continue to emotionally and verbally abuse some parishioners who are gentle and kind, without any repercussions. While false accusations are regrettable, allowing this little talked about abuse to continue is reprehensible. All my friends can easily name priests who were/are controlling and narcissistic, relishing power over. Every priest needs to be psychologically profiled for the safety of every parishioner.

karen oconnell
7 months ago

i agree with 99% of what is written here, especially with Jennifer S. my experience is that priests' need to control, interpret..etc etc is much more dangerous to the population at large. is a touch on the shoulder sexual? it can be...but is it??? offering a ride home... reinterpreting another's words can be sexual but usually isn't . it is a result of our need to control-- which i would suggest is even more forceful, more prevalent than our instinctual pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Mike Houlihan
7 months ago

Here's what jumped out at me from this article:
"Father Graf could have no contact with church officials, including other priests, and he would need to retain his own legal counsel."

This is a violation of charity; a violation of the human rights of Father Graf and of his brother priests who may want to support him; a scandal as damaging to the church as the sex abuse crisis itself. If there is a young man in your life or in your family contemplating priesthood as a vocation, for the love of God tell him to do something else with his life. There is not even the pretense of Gospel values left in the institutional Catholic Church, least of all in the clergy.

Will Nier
7 months ago

I can only imagine as a priest how difficult it is to do your job in today's world. How do you effectively minister to other's without getting personnel? I also would not hear confessions in a closed in room but in the Church and maybe with a camera on me. To much to risk today. I do have to say that was not taught in the seminary when I was there in the 1970's.

Nora Bolcon
7 months ago

So your answer is to attack the privacy of all parishioners rather than risk what they might claim of your abuse?

I would say you should be no priest. The sacrament of confession needs to be confidential for some to feel able to confess their sins and there is an obligation for victims to give some evidence of wrong doing and as this article points out few priests have been falsely accused.

I say put a women called to priesthood willing to take the risk of hearing private confessions in your place sir. Someone who actually cares about the church member more than themselves.

Paul Pearce
7 months ago

It seems to me that one of the basic rights of all people namely that of the presumption of innocence and being in receipt of a skilled defence have been ignored by the general populace and the media in particular. We live in an age of needing someone to blame for all the wrongs in society, when the truth is that youngsters and their elders need or have never been taught to take responsibility for their actions. Actions have consequences; pure and simple. People who have committed heinous abuse crimes deserve to be punished. Innocent people are tried in the media. Let those who have not sinned cast the first stone. Anyone engaging in adultery, mugging and injuring elderly people, raping, cold blooded murder etc. are treated better than Fr. Graf. He should be able to sue the person who caused him so much suffering. On the criminal side, the one who made the allegation should be charged with perversing the course of justice.

David Pierre
7 months ago

SNAP's claim that "False claims of sexual abuse are remarkably low" is **outright false**.

In truth, only 15%-25% of all accusations every year are deemed "substantiated."
Michael grossly misleads his audience with the stats from the 2017 report in that he missed the fact that his numbers only apply to those accusations in which *a determination* has been made!

In truth, the vast majority of accusations are not substantiated!

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
6 months 4 weeks ago

This is unjust. Yes, take the accusation seriously but don't assume the accused is guilty. Give him his rights in civil, criminal, and Canon law, don't isolate him - you have, in effect, imprisoned him. Then - Chief Shepherd of the Archdiocese of Chicago - sue the accuser's rear-end off and get justice for your priest. Anything less is a violation of Canon 220. None of the bishops in this country are willing to do right for the accused. Until they do we will continue to pay $8,000,000 settlements by using the money the People of God have given to the Church for the salvation of souls; not the enrichment of attorneys and accusers who go unchallenged.

Bruce Snowden
6 months 4 weeks ago

It was the most wrenching experience of my life, the day I visited a priest and my former Confessor as he lay near death and see him weep, a man in his eighties, as he tearfully told me, “I was once falsely accused of the sexual abuse of a child!” He ministered as Chaplain in a hospital and used to hang his Religious Habit on a hook in an empty room, safely there he thought for his next day on duty. A hospital worker would at will put on the Habit and as an apparent priest-friar improperly touch a young girl-patient at the hospital. Thus the false accusation against my priest-friend.

Father was dismissed from his Chaplaincy and disgraced in the eyes of many, until it finally occurred to the Bishop and Father Superiors to look more carefully into the charges. The young girl was also summonsed and Father was called to the meeting. In the presence of the Bishop, Religious Superiors and other Officials, the child was asked “Is he the one?” The child responded, “He is not the one!” The Bishop said to Father, “Forget about it!” Years later Father told me. “How could I forget about it? He never did and when Sister Death arrived, he died thinking about it!

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