A court in Minnesota awarded damages to a Roman Catholic priest in August after having found that his livelihood and reputation had been smeared by false accusations of sexual abuse claimed by a former student at high school in the 1970s. The unnamed man had accused Rev. William Graham of “inappropriate sexual conduct” from 1977-78 at Cathedral High School (since renamed Marshall School) in Duluth.
The Duluth jury, in siding with the Catholic priest’s argument that he was entitled to receive damages, may have set a precedent, according to Attorney Mic Puklich, a partner at the Neaton & Puklich law firm. “A priest going on the offensive to clear his name from being falsely accused of sexual abuse – and winning in court. Now that’s rare, if not unprecedented,” said Puklich, represented the Father Graham in the civil lawsuit he filed against his accuser. The jury delivered its verdict on August 23 (Minnesota Sixth District Court, case file number 69-DU-CV-16-1636).
The abuse scandals engulfing the Catholic Church have created a "guilty until proven innocent" climate for priests accused of abuse, says Puklich. “The Church’s response to child abuse and sexual misconduct has been abhorrent, and while the guilty must be punished and the victims provided a chance to heal and find some form of justice; we, as a society, must also hold those who make false allegations accountable, we fail when the truth becomes optional,” says Puklich.
The jury agreed with Graham’s contention that his accuser had sundered Father Graham’s ability to continue working as a priest without justification, said Puklich. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth, following its protocol, had placed Graham on administrative leave as a pastor at St. Michael’s Catholic Church immediately upon learning of the accusations. Graham had not been able to return to work since May 2016.
The jury ordered the accuser to pay Graham $13,500 to cover his lost earnings through August 2018. All Graham really wanted from the accuser was for him to apologize for falsely accusing him of abuse – he would have dropped the lawsuit then, said Puklich.
Graham’s accuser alleged the sexual molestation occurred in 1977-78, when the accuser was a student. The accusations against Graham surfaced in a lawsuit that the accuser filed in Minnesota district court in May 2016 against the school and two parish churches in Duluth. The accused filed his lawsuit just two days before the expiration of a special Minnesota state law that extended the statute of limitations for filing sexual abuse-related lawsuits.
Puklich said that the midst of sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church today, Puklich said that the accused remain innocent until proven guilty. He said that cases should be decided with evidence instead of the court of public opinion. “I don’t know how many other Father Grahams are out there – members of the Catholic clergy falsely accused of abuse – but I suspect there are some, perhaps even in Minnesota. If so, let them take heart from the way the justice system worked for Fr. Graham.”