Chicagoland

Father Graf reinstated as pastor of San José Luis Sánchez del Río

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
April 10, 2019

Father Gary Graf delivers the homily during a Mass for DACA recipients at Our Lady of the Mount Parish in Cicero on Feb. 24, 2018. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Two days after being reinstated as pastor of San José Luis Sánchez del Río Parish, Father Gary Graf stood outside the doors of Maternity BVM School to greet families and staff.

As he talked about how he remained strong during the eight months he was away from ministry after being accused of inappropriate conduct with a minor, he was interrupted by teachers and parents who wanted to congratulate him on his return and tell him they always believed in his innocence.

“It feels great to be here,” said Graf, who served as associate pastor of Maternity BVM after being ordained in 1984. The parish was one of three that united to become San José Luis Sánchez del Río Parish as part of the Renew My Church process in 2018, and Graf was the new parish’s first pastor. “It feels like I never left. The people have been wonderful. The reception has been wonderful.”

Graf had been in the new parish for less than two months when a teenage staff member said a parish secretary told him that Graf was attracted to him. The boy also told authorities that the pastor had rubbed his shoulders and once offered him a free car.

Graf stepped away from ministry in late August 2018 while the allegations were investigated. According to a letter from Cardinal Cupich, Graf cooperated fully with civil authorities, including a criminal investigation and an investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services, and with the archdiocesan Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review.

Graf was acquitted of criminal charges in January, and DCFS determined the allegations were unfounded. Once those processes were complete, the archdiocese began its own review.

Cardinal Cupich shared the results of that review with Graf on April 6 before releasing his letter to parishioners.

“The most painful part was not knowing what was going on,” Graf said. “I couldn’t converse with anyone. I couldn’t talk about it with anyone.”

But Graf said it was important that he step aside and let the process take its course because the church must do all it can to protect young people.

“When there’s an accusation against a priest, we didn’t do the right thing for a long time,” he said. “We didn’t listen to the child first, and a lot of the time, if we listened to the priest first, we believed him and moved him somewhere else. This is the only way to do it. You have to listen to the child and the parents.”

Then, he said, you have to have faith that if there is a false accusation, that will become clear in the course of the investigation.

In his letter to parishioners, Cardinal Cupich said, “Our policies also 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. Therefore, both out of regard for Father Graf and all our priests, I am resolved to see that Father Graf’s good name is restored.”

Graf said he and Cardinal Cupich both agreed that he should return to San José Luis Sánchez del Río Parish and take up his ministry there.

The accusations against him and his time out of ministry were painful not only to him, but to the parish and the other parishes where he has served, Graf said.

“There are people at Maternity BVM who have known me for years, but the people at St. Philomena and St. Francis of Assisi, I was new to them,” Graf said. “And the people in Waukegan [where Graf served at another merged parish, Most Blessed Trinity], whose kids grew up with me.”

One of his parishioners from Waukegan said he was confident that Graf was innocent.

“My family and I have known him since the 1990s,” Miguel Zamudio wrote in a Facebook conversation. “He taught my two daughters from prekindergarten until the eighth grade, and he drove the school bus many times when there was not enough staff.”

He was there for many of the family’s important events, including the death of Zamudio’s mother, and when Zamudio and his wife renewed their vows.

He’s like a brother, said Zamudio, who added that he gives thanks to God for Graf’s return to ministry.

It was while he was in Waukegan as pastor of Holy Family Parish in 2002 that Graf donated part of his liver to a parishioner. In early 2018, when he was pastor of St. Procopius Parish, he was in the news when he went on a fast in support of undocumented young people known as “Dreamers.”

David Hernandez, a member of San José Luis Sánchez del Río Parish, said he hopes this means the new parish can move on.

Hernandez was originally a parishioner at St. Philomena and was active in the Renew My Church process that brought the three parishes together, and had planned to be active in the new parish, possibly serving on a leadership structure like a parish pastoral council.

“I’m happy he’s back,” said Hernandez said of Graf. “He’s positive and he’s ready to get to work.”

It was difficult for the new parish to really get things going without a pastor and with Masses celebrated by priests filling in every weekend, he said.

“It was really difficult to even consider making decisions,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said many parishioners did not have a chance to get to know Graf last summer, and some people left the parish because of the turmoil.

“The people who stayed, they stayed not because of the priest but because of the community,” Hernandez said. Still, most were not surprised when the allegations came to nothing, he said.

 “Now it’s a matter of connecting and reconnecting,” Hernandez said. “I’m happy he’s back.”

Read Cardinal Cupich’s letter: archchicago.org/en/statement/-/article/2019/04/06/letter-from-cardinal-blase-j-cupich-on-father-gary-graf.

 

Topics:

  • clerical sexual abuse of minors

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