Editorial: Is a Priest Guilty until Proven Innocent?

Oakville-Mehlville Journal [St. Louis MO]
November 16, 2005

Merely the word of an accuser — without any physical evidence — recently was sufficient for a jury to find a Catholic priest guilty of sodomizing a minor. It happened to Father Thomas J. Graham, a highly-respected priest of the St. Louis Archdiocese — and the same could happen to any clergyman in this era of suspicion against Catholic priests.

The St. Louis circuit attorney's case against him rested solely on the shaky and inconsistent testimony of an accuser who could not keep his "story" straight.

Observers of the four-day trial — including several attorneys, retired lawmen and a veteran court deputy — walked away shaking their heads in disbelief that the 30-year-old case had been brought to trial and that the jury could have found the accuser credible.

A steady flow of Father Graham's supporters, lifelong friends and former parishioners attended the trial as observers or witnesses. All were stunned by the verdict.

The jury found Father Graham on Aug. 31 guilty of one count of sodomy and recommended 20 years in prison — in essence a life sentence for the 72-year-old priest.

Father Graham is free on bond and the case is being appealed. A sentencing date was scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 17.

Since the accuser, now 43, made his allegations 11 years ago, Father Graham has adamantly protested his innocence. The St. Louis Archdiocese conducted an investigation "based on available information (and) did not find (the charge) to be substantial."

Father Graham had been a priest for six years when he was transferred to the now-defunct St. Mary's parish in Bridgeton in 1966. He became close friends with a black woman parishioner who had an adopted son, Larry Woolworth (not his real name), born Jan. 12, 1962.

At the trial, Woolworth testified Father Graham occasionally took him on car rides to a farm where the priest boarded a horse. Woolworth alleged he sat on Father Graham's lap while the priest simultaneously fondled him and drove the car on busy Lindbergh Boulevard.

Woolworth also said that during Father Graham's assignment at the Old Cathedral in 1975-80, the priest performed oral sex on him as many as 20 times.

Father Graham said of Woolworth's allegations: "He's lying." The priest categorically denied under oath any abuse or inappropriate conduct whatsoever.

He testified the two eventually had a falling out because of Woolworth's homosexuality.

Then in July 1994, Woolworth and a homosexual boyfriend confronted Father Graham with Woolworth's allegations of abuse. Soon afterward, Woolworth approached the archdiocese for a cash settlement. Father Graham flatly denied the allegations and the archdiocese turned down Woolworth's request.

Woolworth pursued the matter by filing lawsuits in 1996 and 1999 — in both cases asking for at least $25,000 — but subsequently had the lawsuits dismissed.

He again approached the archdiocese in a 1998 letter, asking for $30,000. He wrote in the letter: "If we can come to terms with this, no lawyers involved, I am willing to drop my case in it's (sic) entirety, and sign an affidavit stating that you will not here (sic) from (Woolworth) again concerning this matter with Fr. Graham."

After the national clergy sex-abuse scandal began in 2002, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce publicly asked anyone with a molestation complaint against a priest to come forward. Woolworth, a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), responded.

It was unusual, a police detective testified at the trial, that the case was initiated by Circuit Attorney Joyce's office rather than by the Police Department.

And it was interesting that the defense attorney voiced concern to the judge that Joyce who assigned an assistant to prosecute the case was scheduled to speak at a SNAP meeting during the trial. And toward the end of the trial, she met in the courtroom gallery with SNAP Director David Clohessy.

Also interesting: Much of Woolworth's sworn testimony during the trial directly conflicted with what he previously had alleged.

Consider the question of Woolworth's age when the alleged molestation began: A transcript of the trial shows Christian Goeke, Father Graham's attorney, noted that Woolworth told the police it started in 1969 or 1970; he filed a lawsuit alleging it began in 1972 or 1973; he filed another suit saying it began in 1974 and he testified in court it began in 1974.

Goeke: OK, so now we've got four different dates that you identified as being when this alleged molestation began, correct?

Woolworth: Yes.

The contradictions and flip-flops in Woolworth's "story" continued to pile up the longer he testified:

He told police that Father Graham did not molest him during the first car trips to the horse farm. But he alleged under oath that the molestation began on the very first ride.

Woolworth told police that during the car rides, Father Graham fondled him above his clothing. But on the witness stand, he alleged the priest fondled him beneath his clothing.

He said in a deposition that he joined SNAP in 1989. Under oath at the trial, he testified he joined SNAP in the early 1990s and was a member before he confronted Father Graham with his abuse allegations in July 1994. But he told police he joined SNAP after the confrontation.

Woolworth testified he had not told his stepmother about his allegations until after he confronted Father Graham. But under questioning on the witness stand, he changed his mind — saying he "got confused" — and said he had told her before the confrontation.

After hearing such discrepancies in Woolworth's testimony, how could members of the jury believe he was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth? With no real evidence to consider, how could the jury find Father Graham guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?

To seal Father Graham's fate, prosecutor Ed Postawko "played the race card" before the mostly-black jury. Although no testimony had been introduced during the trial concerning race, Postawko waited until his closing statements to portray Woolworth as a black victim of the white priest.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, the defense brought forward a sampling of character witnesses: Active and retired lawmen, an attorney, a travel agent and Father Edward Rice, pastor of St. John the Baptist parish in South St. Louis, who said Father Graham inspired him to become a priest while he and his brothers worked with Father Graham at the Old Cathedral in the 1970s — during the time of the alleged abuse. Each testified as to Father Graham's impeccable character, rock-solid integrity and unshakable moral values.

There has been a dark cloud hanging over Father Graham for more than a decade.

He has been dragged in and out of court repeatedly for two civil lawsuits and a criminal trial — despite his consistent and adamant denials that he committed any crime or harmed Woolworth in any way.

Father Graham has undergone a public smearing of his reputation and his vocation as a priest has been paralyzed.

The real challenge for his defense team and the archdiocese is to find a way to totally exonerate him and to clear the record permanently of a scurrilous charge of sodomy.

After the trial, Father Graham received a letter from an old friend, Jerome O'Keefe, a 35-year police veteran and retired Kirkwood chief of detectives. "I couldn't believe how weak the evidence (or lack of evidence) was that convicted my lifelong friend," O'Keefe wrote. "If this is justice, God save us all."

Kevin Madden, a Dogtown journalist, is a veteran of the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat who covered police and court stories. He attended the trial and read the transcript.