In a man-bites-dog case with few if any precise corollaries, a Roman Catholic priest designated as “credibly accused” of sexual misconduct by the Diocese of Duluth just last April has successfully sued the man who made the allegations against him.
After a three-day trial before 6th Judicial District Court Judge Theresa Neo, an eight-member jury awarded the Rev. William Graham $13,500 to compensate him for the $500 monthly stipend he did not receive during the period from May 2016, when he was placed on administrative leave from his job as parish priest at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Duluth, to August 2018, when the trial was held.
In answers to questions listed on a special verdict form, the jury said that Graham’s accuser, former Duluth police officer T. J. Davis, Jr., “intentionally interfered” with Graham’s employment and, further, that his actions were not justified.
But the jury also found that Davis’ conduct was not “so extreme and outrageous that it passed the boundaries of decency and was utterly intolerable to a civilized community” and it expressly declined to award additional damages that would “fairly compensate” Graham.
What is one to make of such an odd, seemingly contradictory verdict?
Michael Bryant of Bradshaw & Bryant, who served as lead defense counsel and has since filed a notice of appeal, did not respond to Minnesota Lawyer’s request for comment.
However, Mike Finnegan of Jeff Anderson & Associates, who is representing Davis in a civil action against three church-related entities over the alleged abuse and who attended the trial, said that in his view the “split verdict” indicated jurors must have believed Davis. At the time of the alleged crimes — 1977 — Davis was a high school student at Cathedral Senior High School (now Marshall School), where Graham taught religion.
Finnegan said the Duluth diocese’s pending bankruptcy, which led to a stay of Davis’ lawsuit against two Duluth churches and his alma mater, made the case “difficult to defend.”
“The bankruptcy got in the way of our side getting any of Graham’s files. We couldn’t bring any evidence the diocese collected when they found T.J. Davis credible,” said Finnegan.
Not surprisingly, Michael “Mic” Puklich, Graham’s attorney, interpreted the outcome much differently. He also chafed at Finnegan’s claim that it amounted to a split verdict.
“The jury gave us everything we wanted,” said Puklich, partner at the Chanhassen law firm of Neaton & Puklich. “We didn’t ask for a specific amount of emotional distress damages because we knew this individual would not be able to pay a large award. But this case was never about money. It was about clearing my client’s name, and that’s what we did.”
That characterization is bolstered by a letter one of the jurors sent to Judge Neo in the aftermath of the trial. In a two-page missive dated Sept. 5, juror Merry Wallin of Dululth wrote that there was “no proof” that Graham abused Davis and she expressed displeasure with media reports that described the jury as delivering a “split verdict.”
“We did not assign dollars to pain and suffering for the plaintiff because Mr. Puklich did not ask for a sum of money. More than that, we did not want to assign an arbitrary amount of damages as we felt both parties had been through enough and to assign too high a financial decision may only cause more distress with an appeal by an overzealous attorney,” Wallin explained in the letter.
She called Graham “brave” for fighting to clear his name against the backdrop of the burgeoning clergy abuse scandal.
For his part, Puklich said he became convinced his client had been wrongly accused soon after he began reviewing the evidence two years ago. Among other things, he noted that Graham has not been the subject of any other accusations of abuse and that he willingly sat for a lie-detector test, which he passed. Additionally, Puklich said he was able to introduce evidence at trial that showed inconsistencies in Davis’ claims about when and where the alleged abuse took place.
After the verdict came down, Puklich said, Graham was “extraordinarily happy, to the point of breaking down, because he’d finally been vindicated.”
“Professionally, it was one of the proudest moments I’ve had in my life,” he added.
While Puklich and Finnegan differ about the meaning of the verdict, the two lawyers agree on one thing: It was an unusual case with an unusual outcome.
Tim Lennon, president of the national advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, echoed that sentiment. Lennon said he is aware of some prior cases in which clergy have tried to turn the tables on their accusers. “Anybody can sue anybody. Sometimes, it’s used as a means to intimidate,” Lennon said.
But he said he did not know of any instances in which an accused clergy member sued an accuser, took the case to trial, and actually prevailed.
According to Puklich, Graham is currently going through an arbitration-like process with the church in the hopes of returning to his ministerial duties but did not know what bearing, if any, the jury’s verdict would have on those proceedings.
“All he wants to do is be a priest,” said Puklich. “He never sought publicity. He never sought fame. That’s all he wants to do.”