City priest taken out of ministry amid '60s abuse claim

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The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has placed the longtime pastor of St. Lawrence O'Toole parish in Garfield on administrative leave while it investigates an allegation that he sexually abused a minor more than 40 years ago.

The Rev. James Graham, 72, was taken out of ministry Friday, two weeks before he was to retire. He has spent 40 years of his 46-year priesthood at St. Lawrence O'Toole, the last 34 as pastor. The parish is slated to merge with two others into a new parish, St. Maria Goretti, in June.

Auxiliary Bishop William Waltersheid read a letter from Bishop David Zubik at weekend Masses.

"Though the allegation concerns events from many years ago, the length of time makes no difference," Bishop Zubik wrote. "The allegation has been judged to have what we describe as 'a semblance of truth' -- that the timing and circumstances surrounding the allegation fit the facts that are known. It does not mean, however, that a definite judgement has been reached."

The accuser called the diocese Thursday and met with officials on Friday, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese. Immediately after the meeting, Father Graham was placed on administrative leave and notice of the allegation was sent to the district attorney, he said.

Mike Manko, communications director for the Allegheny County district attorney's office, confirmed that the office received a letter about Father Graham from the diocese Monday. "We will attempt to gather the facts surrounding the allegation mentioned in the letter," he said.

Father Graham was ordained in 1966, and the allegation is from his early priesthood in the 1960s, Father Lengwin said. The diocese has no record of a similar complaint against him, he said.

Father Lengwin, who was on medical leave when the allegation was made, said he didn't know if the accuser had ties to St. Lawrence O'Toole. But Father Graham's first assignment was there from 1966-1972.

He was also parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Pleasant Hills from 1972-1974 and St. Bernadette in Monroeville from 1974-1978. He has been pastor of St. Lawrence O'Toole since 1978.

Such long pastorates became rare after the 1983 Code of Canon Law instituted renewable six-year terms. Previously tenured pastors could ask to be grandfathered in, and Father Graham did so, Father Lengwin said.

Calls to St. Lawrence O'Toole were referred to the diocese.

The Rev. Regis Ryan, a retired priest in McKees Rocks who attended seminary with Father Graham, called him an exemplary priest.

"Everyone loved him," he said. "He has a wonderful reputation for taking care of the parish, being very prayerful and doing all the things a pastor is supposed to do. I predict a tremendous response from the people of the parish. This is not going to sit well with them."

Diocesan investigators are interviewing potential witnesses in the case, Father Lengwin said. That testimony will be submitted to the diocesan review board, a group of mostly lay experts on child sexual abuse and law enforcement. The review board will make a recommendation to Bishop Zubik about whether Father Graham should be returned to or permanently removed from ministry.

"We will inform the parishes where he has been, to ask anyone there to come forward" with information or allegations, Father Lengwin said.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests urged anyone with knowledge of the St. Lawrence O'Toole case to contact the police. "To this victim and to all victims, we hope you know that it was not your fault and you are not alone," said Judy Jones, SNAP's Midwest associate director, whose territory includes Pittsburgh.

neigh_city

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published April 18, 2012 12:00 AM


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