BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) – James Graham is now 73 years old. Growing up, he was raised in a household in which the father was generally cold toward young Jim. In 1993, at the age of 48, Graham was told by relatives that the man he thought was his dad was not his biological father.
“An obituary was passed across the kitchen table and there was a likeness of a priest to me,” Graham told WBFO in a telephone interview.
The priest who resembled Graham was the late Reverend Thomas S. Sullivan, buried in Lowell, Massachusetts, but a priest who had served at Holy Angels Church in Buffalo when, Graham explained, he was conceived.
“My mother lived in the adjoining parish. They had a relationship,” he said. “When I was a year and a half of age, mymother disappered with me from Buffalo. My (biological) father made the transfer to Newburgh, New York because it was awkward in the parish. Everybody knew there was a relationship there. He was transferred to Newburgh and after a few months, he disappeared.”
Graham explained further that church officials were unhappy that they did not know the whereabouts of their priest and Graham’s mother and hired detectives who later located them in New York City. Sullivan was returned to the priesthood via the order Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
“They took me from my mother’s custody and put me in a family in Buffalo with her ex-husband, so it would look like I would be his son.”
Vincent Doyle is founder of the organization Coping International, which provides psychotherapeutic support to children of priests and works with Church officials to develop support for children of priests still active. Doyle, who is based in Ireland and is also the son of a Catholic priest, told WBFO that Graham’s true father may have violated vows of celibacy but did not break canonical law by fathering a child as part of a consensual encounter.
But Graham was subject to abuse, he explained, in the form of denying Graham access to the truth for all those years.
“The preference for anonymity trumps natural rights of the child, to know their father and to do the same as everybody else, to recognize your father and have a relationship. That’s the beginnings of abuse,” said Doyle in a telephone interview with WBFO. “What you’re doing is you’re masking imposed secrecy with words like ‘privacy,’ ‘confidentiality,’ et cetera.
“The drive will stay there whether you’re seven, 17 or 77. That drive will not go away and that’s what the Catholic Church did not count on, the determination of that internal, natural drive to put right what was made wrong on purpose.”
When Graham learned he was not raised by his biological father, and when he became increasingly convinced that Sullivan was perhaps his real father, he sought information but for the next 25 years was frustrated by his attempts to gather more information. It began with those who first slipped him that obituary.
“The people that passed the obituary across the table said this man may be the father, we don’t know, only the principles know,” he said. “In fact, they did know but I think these were talking points that the Church supplied them because they knew I would be anxious to know the details of my history.”
His search for those details eventually brought him into correspondence with leaders of the Oblates in Washington, D.C.
“They (Church leaders) were adamant they weren’t going to admit to what happened in the mid 1940s about me, my mother and my father,” he continued. “What happened just recently, in January, was on the phone with the head of the order, and when we had the conversation he said ‘I heard that this thing was lingering out there.'”
But leaders denied they had any information of Sullivan ever fathering a child.
“He wasn’t pastoral, he was very belligerent, he said ‘you think you’re Father Sullivan’s son but you can’t prove it,'” Graham continued. “He kept repeating it and repeating it in our conversation. So what I did was I wrote him a letter and said I could prove it if I could exhume my father’s body.”
To his astonishment, Oblates leaders cooperated and allowed Sullivan’s body to be exhumed from his burial site in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, in June. Conducting the exhumation and acquisition of samples was Ann Marie Mires, a forensic anthropologist whose past work includes identifying the remains of victims murdered by notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. She sent Sullivan’s samples to a Virginia laboratory, where the DNA testing was conducted.
WBFO attempted to contact Mires for this story but messages were not returned. She is featured, however, in a video recorded by the Boston Globe in which she reveals the test results to Graham.
The results verified what Graham had suspected for years. Father Sullivan was indeed his biological father. He admits he was emotional when he finally knew the truth.
“For 25 years, the Church was kind of dug in. They didn’t want to give me any information that would lead to the facts.”
While the parties who would have served at Holy Angels Parish in Buffalo are long gone, WBFO attempted to contact current leadership in early September to see if they might share any background information on Father Sullivan or if any current parish leaders might know of the tale. The call was not returned.
Graham says he does not intend to seek civil damages against the parish or Oblates, telling WBFO the money would change nothing and he has, despite this emotional journey, lived a good life. But he also suggests his case could be the start of a wave of others who suspect they are children of priests and want answers.
Doyle says there’s no telling an accurate number of children of priests.
“It’s very difficult to stop the situation of children of priests,” he said. “How do you stop priests having children worldwide? How do you monitor that? It’s almost impossible. I don’t know how you’d monitor that.”
But what can be done is ensuring priests who father children are then held accountable to support their children. The Catholic Church in Ireland sets guidelines with a document known as the Principles of Responsibility Regarding Priests who Father Children while in Ministry.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, in a letter to Doyle by Provincial Assistant Thomas Coughlin, state they will follow the guidelines of that document. The body of that letter reads: “We can be thankful for the Principles of Responsibility Regarding Priests who Father Children while in Ministry issued by the Bishops of Ireland, recognized by the Union of Superiors General, of which our Congregation is a member, since those guidelines provide us with an appropriate framework for decision making, with the best interests of the child as a central factor, should we ever become aware that a member of our community has fathered a child.”