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Split verdict in Duluth priest's suit against accuser

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Jody Davis places her hand on her husband T.J.'s back in support during Friday press conference, where Davis' attorneys shared the results of a trial in the lawsuit brought over sexual abuse claims. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 5
As his wife, Jody, lays her hand on his arm in support, T.J. Davis gets a hug from his sister, Debbie Davis, at the end of the press conference in the Holiday Center Friday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com 3 / 5
Mike Finnegan, attorney for T.J. Davis (right) in the case brought by a former Duluth priest, introduces his client and Davis' wife, Jody, during a press conference in the Holiday Center Friday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Attorney Mike Finnegan holds up a photo of his client, T.J. Davis, taken in 1976 when Davis was 15 years old. Davis was the defendant in the case brought against him by the Rev. William Graham, a former priest in Duluth. At right are Davis' sister, Debbie Davis, and attorney Mike Bryant. At right is Davis's wife, Jody. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

A jury's verdict has both sides claiming victory in the lawsuit that brought a prominent Duluth priest against a man who accused him of child sexual abuse.

The eight-member Duluth jury concluded late Thursday night that T.J. Davis interfered with the contractual duties of the Rev. William Graham when he filed abuse claims in May 2016, but that he did not intentionally inflict emotional distress on the priest.

This photo shows T.J. Davis in 1976, when he turned 15. Courtesy of the Davis family.Davis, who alleges that he was abused by the priest on three occasions in the 1970s, when he was approximately 15 years old, was ordered to pay Graham $13,500 in damages.

Graham, 68, was pastor at St. Michael's Catholic Church in the Lakeside neighborhood. He was placed on administrative leave immediately after the abuse allegations surfaced, and the Diocese of Duluth earlier this month announced that he had been removed from public ministry after an investigation determined that he was "credibly accused."

The abuse allegations have yet to be litigated in a court of law, as Davis' lawsuit has been put on hold while the diocese proceeds through bankruptcy. Nonetheless, Graham's countersuit against his accuser proceeded to trial this week before Judge Theresa Neo.

Mic Puklich, a Chanhassen, Minn., attorney representing Graham, said the verdict amounts to vindication for his client.

"It's a finding that Father Graham did not engage in the conduct that they alleged," he told the News Tribune. "It's really that simple."

Attorneys for Davis, however, were quick to note that the jury issued a finding that Davis' actions in bringing the suit were not "extreme and outrageous."

"What that tells me is that they believe T.J.," said St. Paul attorney Mike Finnegan. "They think this happened."

Puklich said Graham brought the suit against Davis not because he wanted money but to restore his name and reputation. He said the priest would have dismissed the case if Davis would have apologized and dropped the allegations.

Puklich also was critical of the diocese for removing Graham, saying he loved his work as a priest.

"I think it's ridiculous," he said. "It's not based on any evidence. We have more evidence than the church has, and I don't know why they did it. I expect that the church is so scared of having anybody out there that is accused of something that they will do anything to make sure it doesn't happen."

Finnegan stood by the merits of Davis' allegations. In 2016, he told the News Tribune that he viewed Davis as "one of the most credible survivors that I've ever worked with."

Davis' attorneys provided copies of 2010 correspondence with the diocese, in which Davis' family appeared to raise the issue of abuse by Graham — six years before Davis filed suit under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which temporarily suspended the statute of limitations on decades-old cases.

"The church looked at this, and their standard is very high," said attorney Mike Bryant. "They found this man (Davis) credible. They found the claims credible."

The jury completed a 14-question verdict form finding that Davis had knowledge of Graham's employment relationship with the diocese and was not justified in taking action that interfered with his work. For that, the jury awarded Graham $500 for each month since he was first placed on leave.

The jury also ruled that Davis interfered with Graham's future employment relationships by bringing suit but said Graham was not entitled to any damages in that regard.

Finally, the panel answered "no" to the question: "Was the conduct of Terrance Jerome Davis Jr. so extreme and outrageous that it passed the boundaries of decency and was utterly intolerable to a civilized community?"

Puklich said he was not surprised the jury did not make a finding of emotional distress, as there is a high legal bar and that he was required to "prove something that didn't happen 40 years ago."

Davis' attorneys, meanwhile, contended that Graham never actually worked under a contract and claimed a lack of cooperation from the diocese and Bishop Paul Sirba.

Davis, 56, was identified as "Doe 446" when he filed his lawsuit against St. John's Church, St. Benedict's Church and Marshall School (formerly Cathedral High School). He was subsequently identified in Graham's suit but spoke publicly for the first time Friday.

"I'd like to ask the bishop to come clean," he said at a news conference. "Please release Graham's file, along with the other files he's sitting on."

Deacon Kyle Eller, a diocese spokesman, issued a response defending the diocese's handling of the case and noted that it was not a party to the lawsuit. He said files of all credibly accused priests have already been turned over.

Eller said the Graham allegation was referred to an independent investigator, whose findings were reported to the diocese's review board, consisting of 10 people with experience in social work, psychology, education, law, law enforcement and medicine.

The board made the unanimous recommendation to Sirba that "there existed sufficient credible evidence to substantiate the allegation or support the conclusion that the allegation could be substantiated," he said.

"The diocese's commitment is to the safety of children," Eller said. "In that vein, after a thorough and deliberate process, Father Graham was determined to have been credibly accused of abusing a minor, and accordingly has been removed from ministry. Bishop Sirba stands by that decision, which has been affirmed by the Vatican."

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