After 25 years, it took a DNA test for James C. Graham to understand why the man who raised him was always so distant. The man he knew as his father wasn’t actually his dad at all. In fact, his DNA matched samples taken from a deceased Catholic priest who grew up in North Carolina.
Graham had long suspected that Father Thomas Sullivan was his father, but his mother and Sullivan took the secret to their graves. He began his quest for the truth after seeing a picture of the priest and noticing the similarities in their faces. He appealed to officials in Rome and amassed documents that showed Sullivan was almost certainly his father. Conclusive proof was provided when Sullivan’s religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, gave permission to exhume the priest’s body from a cemetery in Tewksbury to conduct DNA testing.
Demand for DNA testing grows
Graham has now entered an exclusive group of people fathered by Catholic priests who break their promise of celibacy. With more than 400,000 priests worldwide, there may be hundreds of people like Graham growing up without knowing their true biological fathers or shamed into keeping their real father’s identity secret.
This week, many Kenyan families have accused Catholic priests of siring and abandoning children. Some have been taken to court. An agency contracted to perform DNA testing for children believed to have been sired by Catholic priests wants the report made public by 24th September.
The firm’s director, Kinyanjui Murigi, said the campaign began on Saturday. The agency will then send the samples to their parent company in the USA for testing.
“When a person seeks a DNA test, we take the sample and also write to the church to send for the official involved. The church has cooperated”, said Murigi. “The group wants us to give every child and mother a chance if they have sired a child with the priests. It is a straightforward activity.”
He said the DNA test results will be sent to the priest, the mother, the church and the Vatican.
South Carolina-based Graham is now the subject of a 2017 Globe Spotlight report on the children of Catholic priests, and hopes his determination will inspire others who believe they may be the offspring of Catholic priests. He also plans to work with Coping International, an advocacy organization based in Ireland that works with the sons and daughters of Catholic priests globally.
“My message to others is, don’t quit. You may be disappointed along the way, but you’ll get to where you want to be”, he said.
Vincent Doyle, founder of Coping International, said he was pleased with the results of the DNA tests but criticized the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate for not doing more to confirm Graham’s parentage before Graham had to resort to a paternity test on his father’s body.
“I feel so sorry for Jim that he’s had to come all this way to have a natural right acknowledged”, he said. “No church should ever do that to a human being.”
Graham later obtained church documents from a sympathetic priest that explained how his real father had deserted his religious order, leaving no forwarding address and saying he would never return. He subsequently rejoined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and spent the next 16 years doing penance – translating religious texts and performing menial tasks – at a shrine in upstate New York.