For 25 years, Jim Graham has tried to prove he is the son of a deceased Catholic priest who grew up in Lowell and graduated from Boston College.
He pulled old adoption records that mention his “alleged father.” He leaned on leaked documents from a friendly priest and petitioned Catholic leaders all the way to Rome, to no avail.
The quest continued Monday afternoon in a Catholic cemetery in Tewksbury, as a backhoe turned up earth on the Rev. Thomas Sullivan’s grave and promised to provide answers once and for all.
“We missed a lot, the two of us,” Graham said, fighting back tears after the exhumation. “Didn’t have much opportunity for father and son.”
Graham, his wife, and forensic pathologist Anna Marie Mires came to this cemetery on the grounds of an infirmary run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to take a DNA sample from Sullivan’s body. The sample will be compared with a sample provided by Graham and should offer a morbid capstone of Graham’s long search for the truth.
Children of Catholic priests live with secrets and sorrow: Jim Graham
“I never wanted it to come to this,” he said days earlier.
Graham, 72, had longed for some kind of confirmation from the Oblates, a 202-year-old Catholic religious order. He sought some acknowledgment that they knew and had tried to save face all these years.
“But they wouldn’t do that so I was left with no choice,” Graham said.
Although his quest appears to be unique, Graham is one of thousands of people around the world with credible claims that they were fathered by Catholic priests, often with no confirmation or financial support from the church. Frequently compelled to lead lives of silence and sorrow, they are the unfortunate victims of a religion that has, for nearly 900 years, forbidden priests to marry or have sex but has never set rules for what priests or bishops must do when a clergyman fathers a child.
Earlier this year, Graham received permission to conduct the exhumation from the Washington, D.C., office of the Oblates and had to overcome a variety of obstacles before the digging could begin.
He acquired a permit from the town of Tewksbury. Later, he went shopping for a drill bit that would be used to bore into Sullivan’s femur, an optimum location for retrieving DNA from a body that may have decomposed.
“So, there I was at Lowe’s buying some of the tools that the forensic anthropologist would use on my father,” said Graham, who was featured in a 2017 Globe Spotlight investigation into the children of Catholic priests. “I’m learning about all these procedures in ways I never thought I would.”
That drill bit came into play Monday. Mires, the forensic anthropologist, said the metal casket was raised from the grave. A nameplate identified the remains as the Rev. Thomas Sullivan, ensuring her that she had found the right body.
Mires said the remains were so well-preserved that she could recognize Sullivan from the photos she had seen. She took a sample from Sullivan’s femur, and three additional samples from other parts of his body, which was standard procedure for her. “From a DNA perspective, I was very happy about that,” Mires said.
The accelerated DNA testing will be done in Virginia, by Bode Cellmark Forensics, and Graham expects to receive test results in about a month. He said the total cost of the exhumation, the forensic anthropologist, a funeral director, and testing will exceed $10,000.
Coping International, a group that provides counseling and other support for priests’ children, has followed Graham’s case.
“I’m happy for Jim and I hope he finally finds closure,” said Vincent Doyle, the son of an Irish priest and the group’s founder. “But this was really a last resort and I can’t help but wonder, after 70 years, was there not a simpler solution?”
The Oblates say there was not. “Nobody is denying Jim’s idea that Father Tom Sullivan was his father,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Coughlin, the assistant to the order’s United States provincial. “We’ve been attempting to put his mind at ease. We just don’t have the information he wishes we would give him.”
Graham remains skeptical of that explanation, and for good reason. For a quarter century, at times working with the help of a detective agency, he has collected documents showing that Sullivan was almost certainly his father. The documents include more than 30 pages of records from a New York City adoption agency, which his mother used for day-care services after she left her husband, the man who raised Graham, in Buffalo, N.Y.
Those records refer to Jim as an “o.w. child,” or a child born out of wedlock, and mention a sympathetic “alleged father” living nearby.
Other records — church documents given to Jim by a friendly priest, and a transcript of his mother’s divorce proceedings — strongly suggest Sullivan deserted the Oblates and moved to New York City at about the same time as Jim’s mother.
The church records show that Sullivan was transferred from a church in Buffalo to the Oblate College in Newburgh, N.Y., about a 90-minute drive from Manhattan, “to protect him and save him” from “a serious occasion.” They also show that Sullivan left the college a month later, without leaving a forwarding address, saying he would never return.
If Graham’s mother and the Rev. Sullivan were attempting to start a new life as lovers and his parents, their plans were abruptly dashed when private detectives raided their New York City apartment. This, according to Graham, gave his stepfather the evidence he used to divorce his mother and retain custody of him and two girls that Graham now believes are his half-sisters.
After the raid, Sullivan rejoined the Oblates and spent the next 16 years doing penance — translating religious texts and performing menial tasks — at a shrine the Oblates maintained in upstate New York, according to church records reviewed by The Boston Globe. When the Oblates deemed him rehabilitated, he fulfilled assignments in far-flung regions of the country and eventually returned to Tewksbury, where in 1993 he died of melanoma in the infirmary overlooking the cemetery where he was buried.
Troubled by questions about why the man who raised him treated him so coldly, Graham carefully assembled the documents and interviewed clergy members, including a nun who knew the priest well. He petitioned Oblate leaders in Rome, asking that they formally acknowledge Sullivan was his father, but to no avail.
Then, last year, when Graham was prominently featured in the Spotlight investigation, he was contacted by a clergy abuse survivor from the Boston area who has been a vociferous advocate for other survivors.
Olan Horne, who was molested by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham, offered to broker a meeting with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the leader of a commission established by Pope Francis to study the issue of priests who sexually abuse children and young people. It was Horne’s hope, and Graham’s, that O’Malley would use his influence to push the Oblates to be more responsive.
O’Malley met with Horne in late December, Graham said, although Graham was not permitted to be there. As a result, Graham received a call from the Rev. Louis Studer, the head of the Oblates in the United States, though Studer offered little in the way of help.
“We’ve told him our records contain no reference to any offspring by Father Tom Sullivan,” said Coughlin, Studer’s assistant. “We have records but they don’t contain the information he’d like us to find there.”
But Graham persisted, until the Oblates agreed to allow him to exhume the Rev. Sullivan’s remains, leading him to pursue his quest to the end of the line – the small cemetery here on the grounds of the Oblate infirmary. “I’m pretty persistent,” Graham said. “I wasn’t going to go away.”
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