Seeking A Confession
A man born in Buffalo in 1945 wants the Catholic Church to admit a priest is his biological father.
Author: Steve Brown, Dave Harrington
Published: 2:20 PM EST January 30, 2018
Updated: 6:06 PM EDT September 5, 2018
LOCAL 7 Articles

SENECA, SOUTH CAROLINA — “I hope the public pressure will get the Church to be transparent in this particular case.”

The case Jim Graham is referring to is his own.

He was born in Buffalo in 1945 and grew up both in the city and in Williamsville, leaving the region when he turned 18. Today, Graham is 72 and semi-retired and living in western South Carolina with his wife, Melodie. He runs a couple of golf-related businesses including installing artificial turf golf greens.

And over the last quarter-century, Graham has also has spent endless hours and several thousand dollars researching his life story and chasing down people who he says have helped him reach an unshakable conclusion.

"My father was a priest. Father Sullivan.”


Seeking A Confession

Chapter 1


A family meeting changes everything

WATCH: Seeking A Confession Part 1

Most mornings, Jim Graham is on his computer.

The 72-year-old has an ambitious project. He's telling the world his life story one tweet at a time on Twitter.

"Everyday I'm getting more followers. It seems that people who I'm not following me are following me," says Graham.

He was born in Buffalo in 1945. His parents divorced when he was a toddler. He and his two older sisters lived with their father, John Graham, described as a gruff, barrel-chested man who operated a Texaco filling station near Main and Michigan, not far from Offermann Stadium. Jim says their relationship was always cold.

"He never supported me. He never said anything kind to me, never played ball with me. He was a little different with other people in the house but with me for some reason there was a…a disdain I never understood," says Graham.

The Graham children rarely saw their mother, Helen. Visitation was limited to a handful of days at Easter and during the Summer. No overnight visits allowed.

Years later at Jim Graham's wedding both John and Helen were there. But in 1979 John Graham passed away. Helen died in 1993. After her death, Jim started hearing rumors from within his family about a secret kept from him.

It get to the bottom of it, Jim asked for and got a meeting with Katheryn and Otto Graham, his aunt and uncle. It was at Otto's home in Kenmore. It was not a friendly meeting.

"You can see that they're not happy to discuss what we're going to talk about the questions I'm going to ask. I felt like I was an adversary in that environment that day," says Jim.

Katheryn slid a yellowed sheet of newsprint across the table. On it was the obituary for a Father Thomas Sullivan.

Then she said, "This man may have been your father. We don't know. Only the principles know and they're all dead."

Jim Graham was stunned. He had so many questions. But his aunt and uncle refused to discuss it further.

"They sat their stoically and let me look at the obituary and didn't say a thing," says Graham.

Chapter 2

Playing Detective

Jim Graham's search into his history begins with an obituary

WATCH: Seeking a Confession Part 2

Where do you start when you're told the man who raised you is not your father?

At the time, in the fall of 1993, Jim Graham was successfully scaling the ladder to business success. He left home at 18 for Long Island. He landed a job at American Airlines, going from the mailroom to sales. Later, he started a business venture which he operates to this day, installing artificial turf putting greens.

It's one of two businesses Graham runs from his lakefront South Carolina home. So, he's had both money and flexible hours which have allowed him to dig into past.

And his search into his past all started with that yellowed newspaper obit given to him by his uncooperative aunt and uncle. On the back of it, Graham's first clue.

"I saw the address in Tewksbury, Massachusetts and the obit was written by a Father Reddy," says Graham.

Off to Tewksbury Graham went. He tracked down Father Reddy. That led him to neighboring Lowell Immaculate Conception Church, where a young Tom Sullivan attended mass before heading off to Boston College and seminary.

That's how it went for months and years. One discovery leading to the next. Eventually, he figured out that when he was just a year old, his mother took him and ran off to New York City. She found work at the Polyclinic Hospital, living in the nurse's dormitory.

But if Helen was living there, where was Jim? Who was caring for the toddler while Helen worked?

Digging through an old address book, Graham found a number for a nun who was a friend of Father Sullivan.

In a meeting, Graham asked the nun, "I said, 'Sister, can you at least tell me where I was? My mother was working in the hospital. Where was I? Who was caring for me?' And she said, 'Oh, you were in the orphanage. You were in the Foundling Hospital.' "

The New York Foundling Hospital still exists in Manhattan. In the '40s, it was largely run by nuns.

And they took very meticulous notes. Along them, hand-typed entries of every visit Helen Graham made to see Jim. Most visits included notes from interviews the nuns conducted. The log is 32 pages long, and a treasure trove of details about Jim Graham's stay at the Foundling Hospital.

Chapter 3

The Foundling and Found-Out

Helen Graham ran to NYC with her baby, discovered months later

WATCH: Seeking a Confession Part 3

According to the admittance form, Jim Graham was 18-months-old when he was placed in the care of the Foundling Hospital. The date January 22, 1947.

Helen Graham made it clear she wanted to be known by her maiden name, Helen O'Connell.

Her husband, John Graham was listed as "step parent".

In the space on the form to identify the father is the word "Unknown".

Jim Graham believes his mother ran-off to New York with Father Sullivan. There is evidence he was living in the rough Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.

"I understand that he was a bartender and a short-order cook. He was doing these kind of things to survive in New York after he left Buffalo," says Graham.

There are multiple entries indicating Helen was hiding in New York, but early on, hospital staff seem to have tipped off the Graham family's church in Buffalo.

There was this entry:

February 6th, 1947 - "Letter sent to Annunciation Church Rectory to verify James' baptism."

The parish responded quickly. But wouldn't a request for documents spark questions, like what was the Graham's baby doing in a New York City hospital? Wouldn't the church ask John Graham about this?

Clearly, the circle of people in Buffalo who knew where Helen and Jim Graham were was growing because the very next month there was this log entry:

March 11th, 1947 - "Father Larkin had paid (Helen) a visit..."

Jim Graham explains, "Father Larkin was a friend, a good friend of Father Sullivan, about 15-years older. From Lowell."

Two months later, Jim came down with small pox. He was transferred to Willard Parker Hospital. It wasn't long before the hospital wanted to know who was going to pay for the boy's medical care.

A log entry on May 23rd, noted a hospital staffer told Helen that because the child's home was in Buffalo, the bill would be sent there. The log entry continued:

"Mrs. Graham knew what this implied. It would mean that her husband would have to be contacted..."

In the following weeks, both Helen Graham and the nuns at the Foundling worked to keep Wallard Parker from contacting John Graham about the medical bill. If it worked, it did not last.

Log entry:

July 23rd, 1947 - "(Helen Graham) was informed that Willard Parker did contact Buffalo and she was fearful that her husband would now learn her whereabouts and this is the thing she did not want to happen."

What the wife and mother on the run likely did not know was that she was just days away from being discovered.

Chapter 4


A one-sided, one-day divorce trial severs Jim Graham from his mother

WATCH: Seeking a Confession Part 4

July 29th, 1947.

It was a warm summer night in New York City. The temperature was about 70 degrees at 2 am.

A group of men arrived by car at 332 West 45th Street. One of them, a private detective secured a key to apartment #5 on the building’s third floor.

The cluster of men walked into the apartment and found a couple in bed. The woman in that bed was Helen Graham. The man in bed with her was not her husband.

Her husband was John Graham, among the men who entered the apartment in the dead of night. Six months after running off to New York with her one year old son, Helen Graham had been caught. It would ultimately cost her her marriage and almost all access to her children.

2 On-Your-Side gleaned these details from a divorce trial transcript. The date on the transcript is November 24th, 1948. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving.

John Graham had filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery.

Helen Graham was not there in court that day…and her attorney was not there either. The proceeding was quick. Just three witnesses called to the stand: John Graham, his brother Otto and a family friend, Patrick Sheehy.

Otto Graham and Sheehy gave very similar testimony about how they came to be inside that New York City apartment in the middle of a July night.

The Graham brothers and Sheehy drove to New York and met a Harold Mayhew and “some of his associates”. (There is a later reference to private detectives.)

Arriving at the apartment building, the superintendent, identified as “Mr. Lisandrelli”, provided a key “to the room where Mrs. Graham was staying”.

The group of men knocked before entering. The door was unlocked and the men walked in.

Otto Graham testified, “We saw a man getting out of the bed. He was unclothed.”

Sheehy offered a very similar account, “I observed a man getting out of bed and he was naked.”

Spotted in bed with the man was Helen Graham.

Otto Graham: “She was just getting out of bed and putting a smock on.”

Sheehy thought the clothing looked like a nurse’s uniform.

Were they certain it was Helen Graham?

Patrick Sheehy: “Yes, sir.”

Otto Graham: “There can be no mistake.”

The curious part of the testimony of the two men was the lack of an identification of the man in bed with Helen. Both men said they knew him “from Buffalo”. But neither Otto nor Sheehy offered an identification and neither was asked.

Judge Hamilton Ward had no questions when the brief testimony was over. He later awarded full custody of the Graham children, including Jim, to John Graham. Visitation was limited to a handful of days twice a year, at Easter and over the summer.

John Graham’s attorney that day was no ordinary family law practitioner. It was William Mahoney. At the time, Mahoney was an influential man as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. His brother, Walter, a Republican State Senator.

John Graham was not a wealthy man. He ran a gasoline filling station, often working seven days a week. How could he afford to hire a prominent attorney and private detectives to chase down his wife’s whereabouts?

Jim Graham has his suspicions, but no evidence that John Graham got financial help. He simply attributes it to, “the powers that be.”

Chapter 5


Jim Graham had a story and he wanted the world to know it

WATCH: Seeking a Confession Part 5

Among the artifacts and documents Jim Graham has dug up, one item is most prized.

It is a large, heavy crucifix. It belonged to Father Thomas P. Sullivan.

Graham claimed it at the Oblate Mission national headquarters in Washington. He told a priest there that he was a relative.

“It’s a piece of him. I knew this was bouncing off his chest for 59 years. It makes me feel close to him” says Graham.

But the accumulated treasures from almost a quarter-century of searching left him short of his goal: to get the Catholic Church to admit Father Sullivan was his parent.

Then, Graham saw the movie “Spotlight”, which told the story of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning investigation into widespread sexual abuse committed by priests. It gave Graham an idea.

“The first thing that happened is Jim Graham called me,” says Michael Rezendes, one of the Globe reporters who worked on the priest sex abuse scandal coverage.

Graham pitched his story to Rezendes. But there was a catch.

“I often tell people when they call me with stories that I generally don’t write stories about unfortunate things that happen to individuals,” says Rezendes.

So, no story about Graham. Then, Rezendes heard from a man living in Ireland, Vincent Doyle.

Doyle says he, too, is the son of a Catholic priest. As part of an outreach to others whose parents are Catholic clergy, Doyle started a website, Coping International. Data on visitors to the website shows the highest traffic comes from Ireland, the UK and the US.

Doyle believes leadership in the American Catholic Church is shirking its responsibility when it comes to the children of priests, “because if they open up there could be a huge amount of people coming forward.”

In Ireland, bishops there last year tackled the issue head-on, publishing its protocol for dealing with children of clergy. The policy states “the needs of the child should be given first consideration” and that priests who father children need to live up to their “personal, legal, moral and financial” responsibilities for that child.

The issue has surfaced in the United States as well. In 2012, Bishop Gabino Zavala resigned from the Los Angeles Diocese after it was discovered he was the father of two teenagers.

All of this and more was covered in a two-part Boston Globe series last August titled, “Father, my father.” Portions of the coverage was fueled by Jim Graham’s years of research.

“Documents that he gathered amounted to an overwhelming treasure trove of circumstantial evidence that suggested so very strongly that Father Sullivan was his father.”

Chapter 6


Graham weighs whether to ask for Father Sullivan's body to be exhumed

WATCH: Seeking a Confession Part 6

Jim Graham wants to make one point clear.

“I’m not looking for money. I just want them to be transparent.”

By them, Graham means the Catholic Church. He has spent much of the last third of his life gathering evidence from his past; documents, photos and a few artifacts. To him, all of it points to Father Thomas Sullivan being his biological father.

But this collection of things in the study of his South Carolina home is all he really knows of Sullivan. Graham has no memories of the priest.

“That I’ll never have, but I’m not going to dwell on it,” says Graham.

Instead, Graham continues to tweet out details of his life. He also works the phone and writes emails and letters hoping church officials will someday publicly proclaim he is the son of a priest.

Graham is not in pursuit of this goal alone. Along the way he has picked up allies, like Olan Horne.

Horne lives in the rocky hills of western Massachusetts. Last August, he read about Graham in the Boston Globe expose on children of Catholic priests.

“I actually put my hand on my chest. It took a breath away from me,” says Horne.

Horne is unique in that while he is not a member of the clergy or an official in any traditional capacity with the Catholic Church, he does have regular access to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

That access is born of old scars. As a boy growing up in the Boston suburbs, Horne was sexually assaulted by a priest. Later in life, Horne became an advocate for others victimized by the same priest.

Upon reading about Graham, Horne set his sights on a meeting with Cardinal O’Malley to plead Graham’s case.

Horne says, “Once the truth is told, the story begins to blossom. I don’t need anybody to tell me they haven’t done the right thing. I’m here to get Jim an answer to his question.”

The meeting happened two days before Christmas 2017. There were two ground rules set by O’Malley. The meeting would last 30 minutes and Jim Graham could not attend.

So, while Graham waited in the chapel downstairs, Horne saw the Cardinal in his office at the Pastoral Center of the Boston Diocese. O’Malley was swayed enough to promise a phone call to leader of the Oblate order in the United States.

Father Louis Studer hold the title of provincial. His office is Washington. The neighborhood includes Trinity Washington University, the office for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Basilica of the national Shine of the Immaculate Conception.

2 On-Your-Side also called Father Studer. In a voicemail reply, Father Tom Coughlin told us, “Father Studer is not interested in making a statement. We have reviewed our records both here and in Rome and there simply is no mention of any offspring of Father Sullivan.”

Graham says he recently spoke with Father Student by phone. He relayed the same message; there are no documents to back-up Graham’s claim.

That seemingly leaves Graham with few options. One of them is DNA testing.

“I thought at one time I could ask to have my father’s remains brought up and do a DNA test, but I thought that would be kind of grandstanding.”

That was Graham’s position last November when 2 On-Your-Side visited. He’s since had a change of heart.

Graham has contacted a Boston attorney about the possibility of beginning the legal process of exhuming Father Sullivan’s body. He has not yet decided whether to go through with it. But the 72 year old knows he will not stop dogging Catholic leaders for the recognition he believes he deserves.

“I don’t know if I’m getting closer, but I’m not going to stop.”

Chapter 7


Graham begin process, seeking exhumation of Sullivan's remains

An inquiry has begun about how to go about exhuming the remains of Father Thomas from his grave in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

Jim Graham has been in contact with a pair of Boston attorneys to figure how this might be done so he can obtain a DNA sample for a paternity test.

Graham has long contended that Father Sullivan, a priest with the Oblate order assigned to Buffalo in the mid-1940’s, is his biological father. That assertion is accepted as fact by a number of Graham family members, but Graham so far only has a circumstantial case to establish it.

He has collected an impressive pile of old documents. Together that strongly suggest Sullivan may be his father. But now, Graham would like certainty in hopes of getting something from the Catholic Church that he’s wanted for many years, an admission that Sullivan fathered him.

Graham has also made contact with local officials on the health board in the town of Tewskbury, Massachusetts. It’s there were father Sullivan’s grave is at the Oblate Fathers cemetery. State law places jurisdiction with local government when it comes to matters of exhuming bodies.

A possible hurdle for Graham is the Oblate order. It is not known whether they would seek to block Graham’s exhumation request. 2 On-Your-Side did pose the question to the leader of the Oblates in the US, Father Louis Studer.

A spokesman for Father Studer left this voicemail on Saturday, “The best I can tell you is that Father Studer will be making no public statement about the proposed exhumation and will have no further comment on this matter.”

2 On-Your-Side also spoke with the director of the Tewksbury Health Department, Susan Sawyer, who said she was not sure whether her office had an established procedure for exhumation.


Jim Graham had hit a dead-end.

For 25-years, he’d been working on his own genealogy. The project began with a secret revealed to him in 1993 by an aunt and uncle.

Graham was told his biological father may be a priest. All he had to start reassembling the puzzle that was now his life was a faded newspaper obit of Father Thomas Sullivan.

So, he went to work.

Graham unearthed documents of his mother, Helen, running off to New York City with him as an infant. More papers surfaced showing how Helen’s husband, John Graham had employed private detectives to track her down. Still more documents show how Father Sullivan was banished to northern New York for years.

It is an impressive collection, but it is just a circumstantial paternity case. No direct evidence.

Graham turned to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Could the Cardinal push the Oblate Order in the US to recognize Graham was the child of one of their priests?

The American leader of the Oblates, Father Louis Studer refused citing insufficient evidence.

Graham says in a phone call, Studer seemed almost amused that Graham could be so persistent without more proof.

“He was almost laughing,” described Graham.

That’s when he decided to ask for an exhumation of Father Sullivan’s remains.

In February, Graham wrote Studer a letter making a formal request. It reads in part, “With your permission, we can bring closure to my 25-year quest for the truth with just a DNA sample.”

In a return letter, a surprising answer: permission granted.

“(T)he Oblates do not intend to oppose your proposal to exhume the remains of Father Sullivan for the purposes of DNA analysis.”

There are conditions. Graham must pay for the exhumation and the testing. He’s also responsible for returning the cemetery grounds to their original condition. All necessary state and local government permits must be obtained.

Graham has been at work on arrangements. In a Skype conversation this morning, he did not mention if he had picked a day yet.

“I didn’t think they would come back and give me approval. I thought for sure they would turn me down. It was totally a surprise,” said Graham.

From his home in Seneca, South Carolina, has been chasing down the requirements including finding a company that will conduct the DNA comparisons. It’s kept the semi-retired Graham pretty busy.

“I’m gonna see this thing through to the end no matter what I have to do,” says Graham.

Then, after a brief pause, he continued, “I think it hit me pretty hard that we’d be doing it."

The Day After Fathers Day

It was Monday, the day after Fathers Day. Jim Graham was as ready as he could be to visit the grave site of the man he calls father.

“It’s been such a stressful time to prepare for this, to think about it and to get it organized. I don’t know anybody who’s gone through this before.”

Graham spent months getting ready to exhume the remains of Father Thomas Sullivan, a Catholic priest of the Oblate Order. The grave is in a small cemetery in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

The arrangements included an excavation crew to dig the casket out. A funeral director had to be on hand. A flurry of phones were necessary to make sure all state and local regulations were obeyed, and perhaps most importantly of all, a forensic anthropologist was needed to take tissue samples from the body.

Those samples, Graham hopes, will provide him Father Sullivan’s DNA so that a paternity test can be performed.

Graham wants undisputable proof that Sullivan is his biological father.

He was granted permission in a letter from as assistant to the leader of the Oblate Order in the US, Father Louis Studer.

The letter required Graham pay for the exhumation, which cost him about $10,000. Other stipulations included Graham make sure that no reporters be present and no pictures or video taken of the exhumation. If this requirement was broken, the exhumation would be shut down.

Out of respect for Graham’s quest to get answers about his heritage, 2 On Your Side honored the condition and stayed away from the cemetery that day.

After almost four hours, Graham arrived at a nearby parcel store with Dr. Ann Marie Mires. After some difficulty getting the casket open, Mires was able to get what she described as good samples, likely to produce Sullivan’s DNA.

“We took a plug of the femur. Big toe. We took a finger. And then we took a section of the mandible in the back of the jaw,” said Dr. Mires.

Mires added that “his hands were nicely wrapped around the crucifix and the rosary” that Sullivan was buried with.

Graham’s view at the cemetery was obscured. The contractor unearthing the grave had a policy of not allowing family members to watch exhumations. Instead of fighting or looking for another excavation company, Graham took a seat on a bench at the cemetery about fifty yards away. A blue tarp was strung-up to block his view.

“I mean the whole time I was thinking about what was going on behind that blue tarp,” said Graham.

“I was just thinking about the process and I was thinking that this is kind of the end of the road for this portion of my story because we’re going to get the validation that he is my father.”

For a third of his life, Graham has been chasing down the truth about his own heritage. He was only told by relatives that Sullivan may be his father after the priest died.

That was in 1993.

In the 25-years since, Graham has collected a treasure trove of documents and photographs. He retrieved the crucifix Father Sullivan wore for years. He has also gathered the stories of what Father Sullivan was like, from the people who knew him and were willing to talk.

But Graham has no recollections of his own, and has never spoke with him.

When asked what he would say if he could talk with Father Sullivan, Graham becomes emotional and struggles to say, “We missed a lot the two of us. Didn’t have that opportunity…as father and son.”


DNA proves deceased priest fathered Jim Graham

It was the first day of classes at Anna Maria College. It’s a small Catholic school in the hills of central Massachusetts.

It’s here Jim Graham came to learn some test results.

Two months earlier, he sat near the grave of Father Thomas Sullivan to watch the exhumation of the remains of an Oblate order priest. Graham had gotten unprecedented permission to dig up Sullivan’s body to obtain tissue samples for a DNA paternity test.

For a quarter century, Graham has spent thousands of dollars and untolled hours gathering documents which tell a convincing story, that the priest Graham never met is his biological father. But all of the evidence is admittedly circumstantial which bothered Graham.

“When I tell my story, there’s always some hesitation because we didn’t have it validated. Some people could question if he was really my father,” he explained.

DNA testing could erase all doubt. So, tissue samples from Father Sullivan and a swab of Graham’s inner cheek were sent to Bode Cellmark Forensics in Lorton, Virginia.

The results were sent to Dr. Ann Marie Mires, a forensic examiner and teacher at the college. She was the person who climbed into Sullivan’s grave to collect the tissue samples.

In the basement of the college library, Dr. Mires sat down with Graham to explain the paternity test outcome with reporters and cameras watching.

Mires began, “You’ve driven all the way from South Carolina to find out whether Father Thomas Sullivan is your father, and I’m here to tell you that he is.”

The normally poker-faced Graham holds back tears and then leans forward to embrace Dr. Mires.

“I don’t think I’ve ever hugged a doctor before. Thank you,” says Graham.

Over the next several minutes, Mires explains the science. Based on the results, the certainty of Father Sullivan being Graham’s parent is 99.99999%.

“This is basically irrefutable,” says Mires.

Graham has it, proof in the form of scientific certainty. He says it’s for others because in his heart he’s known the truth for 25 years.

“The Catholic Church all along, they knew who I am and they all know I’m his son. I look just like him so it’s, it’s bitter-sweet.”

As Graham continues, he struggles to contain his emotions, “It’s not really the…”

He swallows hard a couple of times and continues, “…ending I was looking for because I didn’t think we’d have to go through what we’re going through. My father’s speaking today to all of us through his D-N-A.”

The DNA test results may speak loudest to Father Louis Studer, leader of the Oblate Order in the US.

Studer has previously refused to concede Sullivan fathered Graham. In fact, Graham says in a phone call earlier this year, Studer told him it was an allegation without proof.

Now, with proof in hand, will Graham again ask Father Studer to publicly admit one of its priests is Graham’s father?

He dismisses the idea, “No. He’s gonna read about it. I don’t think I have to go back to him. He’s not an individual I really look forward to talking to again.”

Instead, Graham plans to write a book about his search for answers and proof about who is father really was and the obstacles he says Catholic priests and officials erected along the way. And he hopes his story will inspire other children of priests to seek answers about who their fathers are.