|Priest with Ties to Greenwich Faces Sex Assault Charges
By David Hennessey
December 7, 2011
A Haitian priest who served at St. Mary Parish in Greenwich as recently as 2008 was arrested in Canada in October on charges of engaging in sexual activities with at least one child.
Jean Marie DeGraff, 49, faces two counts each of sexual assault, sexual exploitation, incest, unlawful confinement and one count of assault in connection with three different files in the Calgary, Alberta, court system in Canada.
The sexual assault charges are linked to events that occurred between Aug. 30, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2010, and the sexual exploitation and incest charges are connected to events that occurred between Aug. 15, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2010, according to court documents. The unlawful confinement and assault charges stem from an incident that occurred Oct. 22, 2011, the court documents state.
DeGraff, who served as a kind of visiting priest at St. Mary Parish on Greenwich Avenue for about a year from 2007 to 2008, is scheduled to enter pleas in a Calgary court at 9 a.m. Thursday.
In an diocesan document obtained by Greenwich Time, officials from the Diocese of Bridgeport state that Calgary authorities contacted them on Nov. 1 to inform the diocese that DeGraff had been arrested on Oct. 31 in connection with misconduct involving an underage family member. The alleged incident occurred outside the United States, the document states.
No additional information regarding the allegations was available from Canadian authorities.
DeGraff, who became a priest in the Society of St. Jacques in Haiti in 2004, was released from custody on Nov. 4, but was ordered to surrender his Canadian passport and not leave the country, the document states.
Upon learning of his arrest, diocesan officials ordered DeGraff, who had been working in a non-ministry position, to leave the diocese.
In the document and a statement later sent to Greenwich Time, the diocese distanced itself from DeGraff.
"Fr. DeGraff is not now, nor has he ever been a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport," the document states. "At the request of his Haitian Provincial, he periodically served as an extern priest at certain Diocesan parishes, but has not served in that function in the Diocese of Bridgeport since 2008."
An extern priest is one who serves a different diocese than the one of which he is a member. DeGraff served as an extern priest at St. Mary Parish.
The Rev. Monsignor Frank C. Wissel, pastor of St. Mary's Parish on Greenwich Avenue, said he offered DeGraff room and board while DeGraff was working in the diocese and advocating for his impoverished home nation of Haiti. In return, DeGraff performed duties around the parish as needed, including assisting with Mass and speaking with parishioners, Wissel said. Wissel did not recall exactly when DeGraff stopped serving St. Mary's, but he said it was likely in 2008.
"Many people would come to him after Mass for guidance," Wissel said. "He was very honest with you."
Wissel characterized DeGraff as a "prayerful" man and said no complaints within the parish ever surfaced about him.
DeGraff has previously been investigated for alleged misconduct with a minor.
In November 2008, the diocese received allegations of potential misconduct by DeGraff involving a minor and reported the allegations to the state Department of Children and Families. The diocese also immediately prohibited DeGraff from engaging in public ministry, the timing of which coincides with his departure from St. Mary Parish.
The DCF investigation determined that the allegations against DeGraff were not substantiated.
When contacted Wednesday about the investigation into the 2008 allegations against DeGraff, including whether any of the accusations involved the Greenwich parish, a DCF spokesman said the agency does not release details about investigations because of the sensitive nature of the material.
Since the November 2008 investigation, the diocese has not allowed DeGraff to engage in public ministry.
Brian Wallace, a spokesman for the diocese, said DeGraff has not been working with young people in any capacity since the DCF investigation.
DeGraff left the area at the end of October for a vacation in Canada, where his family lives, Wallace said.
Though he did not know what other parishes in the Bridgeport diocese DeGraff visited, Wallace said DeGraff's activities likely weren't confined to St. Mary's.
"It would be safe to say he probably spoke in more than one parish," he said.
Wissel said he was shocked to hear of the charges against DeGraff.
"I was a mentor to him," he said. "I'll pray for him. What can I tell you?"
Wissel himself has been the target of accusations of misconduct with a minor.
In 2004, the diocese paid $40,000 to two men who made abuse claims against two priests, one of whom was Wissel. The other was Monsignor William Genuario, who headed the diocese's marriage tribunal. The two men, who claimed they were abused by the two priests in the 1970s and early '80s, agreed not to sue the diocese or the priests.
Wissel denied the allegations, calling them "ridiculous." He said the diocese investigated the allegation against him and deemed it to be false.
Staff Writer David Hennessey can be reached at email@example.com or 203-625-4428
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