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DULUTH — The Rev. William C. Graham, removed from active priest duties for nearly eight years amid allegations of sexual misconduct, marked his Vatican-approved return to St. Michael's Catholic Church in mid-May with a media conference backed by a dozen supporters and a dry stone baptismal fountain.

He used biblical terms to describe the Catholic church discipline department's finding that there wasn't sufficient evidence that he was guilty of the allegations.

"Light triumphing over darkness," Graham called it.

Now, weeks after his hard-fought return, Graham will retire June 30. He said Bishop Daniel Felton gave him the option to transfer to the Cass Lake area, appeal the transfer or retire. Graham did not say mass on Sunday morning at his home church.

A letter outlining a restructuring within Duluth's east side churches recently went out from Felton to affected pastors.

"Subsequently to that communication, this week Father Graham informed his parish leadership and Bishop Felton that he plans to retire on June 30, 2024, and Bishop Felton accepted that decision," diocese spokesman Kyle Eller said.

T.J. Davis is glad to see the priest gone again. It was Davis' accusations of "unpermitted sexual conduct" that led to the priest's suspension from daily duties in 2016.

"I'm numb," he said of Graham's retirement. "After seven and a half years of fighting to get your job back, two weeks in you resign?"

Davis accused the priest of abuse during the three-year window provided by the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which offered a chance to come forward after the statute of limitation had passed. His allegations about Graham, dating back to the late 1970s when he was a teenager, were part of a lawsuit against St. John's and St. Benedict's churches and Duluth Cathedral High School. He filed as Doe 446 — part of a wider-reaching lawsuit against the diocese, but didn't stay anonymous for long.

Graham said he found out Davis's identity after a conversation between his and Davis's lawyers that was conducted on speakerphone.

Two months later, Graham filed a lawsuit against Davis for interfering with his livelihood and claiming emotional distress. The priest was awarded $13,500 for the loss of work, but was denied on his charge of emotional distress. The ruling — which didn't prove or disprove Davis's claims, only that Graham's employment was affected — was upheld by an appeals court.

Within the diocese, Graham was still considered "credibly accused" at the time. He was banned from saying mass, hearing confessions or delivering sacraments. He described himself as being in exile.

Graham spent years trying to get his job back — until the ruling came and he was back at the front of the church in late May. The Vatican acquitted him, with a decree of absolution. His restrictions were lifted, his name removed from the diocese's list, and he returned to active ministry at his former church.

Davis said he was horrified and shocked by this turn, which he was told by a past bishop would never happen.

"It was like being abused all over again," Davis said days after the news conference — surrounded by a handful of supporters. Among them: a woman who shared an affidavit by her son about similar abuse at the hands of Graham. She said it was filed with the diocese in 2021.

During his May news conference, Graham credited God and the Vatican for declaring his innocence "after a painful seven years and 10 months of suffering under a demonstrably false accusation." He said he and his parishioners would pray together, listen to each other and then ask, "Where do we go from here?"

The return called for legwork. Graham said that day he didn't know how many people were in his congregation and that he had no office or maintenance staff. He had returned to an empty church. In the months leading up to his return, the church bulletin listed a robust staff — names that were no longer in the weekly newsletter after April 28.

Former staff members did not return calls for comment.

"I am very happy to be restored," he said in an interview Monday. "I'm happy to have my reputation back. I'm sorry for all of the sadness that this episode has caused to so many people. I'm sorry that St. Michael's was without a pastor for eight years and that they and I were both surprised by how it was ending, how it is ending."

Graham has had sharp words for the Duluth diocese. He spoke of its lack of support from the pulpit and at the news conference. He told his audiences that neither the diocese nor Bishop Felton had expressed any regret for what he and his parish had gone through.

"I'm still awaiting it," he said Monday.

On Sunday, substitute priest Peter Lambert came out before mass started and addressed the congregation, which numbered fewer than 100.

"I'm Father Peter and I'm filling in this weekend," he said. "I guess you get a lot of that here, don't you. In fact, we're going to change the name of the parish to 'Our Lady of Perpetual Surprise.'"

Members of the congregation laughed.