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Accused priest cleared of sex abuse, returns to Northwest Side parish

Pastor Gary Graf | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

A Catholic priest who was investigated for sexual misconduct against a minor but ultimately cleared of wrongdoing returned to ministry this weekend at his Northwest Side parish after a full-throated endorsement from Cardinal Blase Cupich.

“The important thing is that they know it was a false accusation, that nothing inappropriate occurred,” Pastor Gary Graf said Sunday before visiting the three churches that make up his North Side San Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio Parish.

The parish consists of St. Philomena and Maternity BVM in the Hermosa neighborhood and St. Francis Assisi in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.

In a letter to parishioners that was also posted on the Chicago Archdiocese website, Cupich said while church policy calls for allegations to be shared with police, it also calls for church officials to restore a priest’s name when allegations are determined 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,” Cupich said in the letter.

Graf said he was eager to return to the job after being sidelined for nearly eight months.

“I’m thrilled that we’re at this moment in the history of the church — I think other good priests are also — and it means there are going to be some false accusations. It’s going to happen. But when a priest is found not responsible of any wrongdoing he’ll be returned back to ministry like I am today and those who are not, they need to be removed from ministry and they need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he said.

“It took much more time than I ever imagined, but it’s important that these investigations happen,” Graf said.

Graf was removed in August from the ministry — just weeks after taking over the parish — while authorities investigated an allegation that a 17-year-old boy received a phone call from a church secretary stating that Graf found him attractive. The boy told investigators Graf had previously touched his shoulders and back.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services found the allegations “unfounded,” Associated Press reported.

An Archdiocese investigation found “there was insufficient reason to suspect that Father Graf had committed sexual abuse of a minor.”

And in January Graf was found not guilty by a Cook County judge in a criminal bench trial stemming from the allegations.

On Sunday, parishioners at St. Francis Assisi, 932 N. Kostner, were pleased to see Graf return.

“We’re glad that everything turned out the way we hoped for,” said longtime parishioner Jesus Rojano.

“We believe in him … he’s not that type of person,” said one female parishioner who asked not to be named.

Graf made news in February 2018 when he announced a hunger strike in support of undocumented immigrants and of “dreamers.”