CHICAGO — A Chicago priest who was accused of sexual wrongdoing was reinstated at his parish after being cleared of the allegations. In the wake of the sex abuse scandal, the Catholic Church acted swiftly, but this time, the accused was an innocent man.
It was a happy homecoming Saturday for the Rev. Gary Graf at San Jose Luis Sanchez Del Rio Parish in the Hermosa neighborhood. His parishioners believed in him all along, but he believed in the process of protecting children, and for him, that meant being removed from ministry for nine months.
A church employee, who was a minor, accused him of inappropriate behavior in July.
The teenager said he once received a phone call from the church secretary saying Graf was attracted to him. He said Graf would also rub his shoulders and once offered him a free car. The teen said he immediately told his parents.
According to a policy for the protection of minors, Cardinal Blase Cupich removed Graf from his pastoral duties, and immediately reported to local authorities. The Department of Children and Family Services investigated and found the allegation was not credible.
Chicago police launched their own investigation and the case went to trial where a judge ruled Graf not guilty. Then, the church conducted its own independent review which revealed no evidence of sexual abuse of a minor.
The season of Lent is a time of sacrifice for 40 days in the Catholic Church, but Graf has spent the last nine months in silence.
"It's a new day, and these kinds of investigations have to take place. If a priest or minister is found not guilty, then he goes back to ministry. And if not, then the priest needs not to go back and be confronted by the law, and to the full extent of the law to be prosecuted," Graf said. "We have to route out anyone who is going to do any harm to the most significant important members of the church which are our children."
Cupich said the following in a letter to parishioners:
"These have been difficult days and months for you as a parish you have shown great patience as each jurisdiction has completed its process. I thank you for doing so. Father Graf has also suffered, as you well know, but he has offered that suffering freely, convinced of the need for us as a church to keep our word that the protection and safety of our children remains the priority."
"This is not about me. This is about protecting God‘s children and and we’re just so pleased that that’s where the diocese is placing its emphasis and its focus. And if it means a priest needs to be removed," Graf said.
Norma Rivera, a parishioner, said it's "the most beautiful" feeling knowing he's been cleared.
"I’ve just been back a few hours but it’s a pleasure just seeing how there seems to be a vibrant spirit, a beautiful new life here that is very invigorating. And I am just so glad that I’m able to come back," Graf said.
As a young priest, Graf gave part of his liver to one of his parishioners in need. This time, he gave months to help the church solidify its process for protecting minors. Now, he is back at the helm of his parish just in time to celebrate Easter — a time of new life.