When a priest is falsely accused of sexual abuse

falsely accused

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.

As Holy Week began, Father Graf was 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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. Continue reading

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