Jacksonville priest target of suit; Parishioner accuses him of sexual assault

Author: Jim Schoettler
Date Published: 09/20/2007

A Jacksonville priest and his church have been sued by a former parishioner and his family who allege he was sexually assaulted and also the subject of a bizarre adoption attempt by the priest.

According to the lawsuit first reported by the Times-Union’s news partner First Coast News, the allegations are against the Very Rev. Nicholas T. Graff and the St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church at 3850 Atlantic Blvd. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America was also named as a defendant and accused of knowing about the misconduct.

The suit, filed Monday in Duval County Circuit Court, does not identify the 22-year-old parishioner or his family members by name. The family is identified as his mother and her parents.

Phone calls by the Times-Union to Graff’s home were unanswered, and a message left on a cell phone was not returned. His attorney, Tom Fallis, declined to discuss the details of the suit.

“The suit is completely without any merit and ultimately [Father Nikos] will be vindicated of all these spurious allegations in the proper form, not the press,” Fallis told the Times-Union. “Unfortunately anybody can file a lawsuit and people in the position of a priest are more vulnerable than most.”

Phone messages left at the church by the Times-Union were not returned. Fallis said Graff has been on leave from the church since June, but he declined to say why.

The suit did not indicate if police had been contacted. Jacksonville police officials did not return e-mails or phone calls for comment Wednesday night.

Attorney Robert Spohrer, who filed the suit, declined to discuss the case. The suit asks for damages exceeding $15,000.

“Due to the sensitive nature of the allegations and the best interest of our client we prefer not to discuss the details of this case at this time,” Spohrer said in a written statement.

The suit states that the parishioner was 10 years old when he first met Graff as a priest at the church. When the parishioner became a teenager, Graff “began exhibiting undue, obsessive and inappropriate interest” in him, the suit said.

The behavior included: taking the parishioner to and from school every day; purchasing him an automobile and clothing; giving him $500 a week over a six-year period; paying travel expenses, phone bills and tuition; and “inducing” him to move into Graff’s home, the suit said.

The suit alleges that Graff used money and accounts of the church to buy the items and give the parishioner cash. As for the parishioner living with Graff, the suit alleges the priest induced him to leave home “with systemic, calculated and ongoing verbal attacks” against his mother and through his material offerings.

The behavior escalated into sexual misconduct when the parishioner turned 16, the suit alleges. The alleged misconduct was not described, but it was said to be “unprovoked, without consent, and … harmful and offensive” to the parishioner, the suit said.

In the summer of 2003, Graff offered the parishioner’s mother $300,000 to surrender parental rights, but the mother refused, the suit said. The suit alleges that about two years later, Graff sexually assaulted the parishioner and filed a petition to formally adopt him.

The suit also alleges that at all times, the church knew that Graff was under investigation for misconduct.

The parishioner now suffers from severe emotional distress, has required hospitalization, therapy and counseling and will require future care, the suit said.

The suit said that the archdiocese and the church were bound to protect the parishioner from foreseeable injury and harm. It also alleges the two entities failed to conduct appropriate background screening on Graff and failed to supervise him as a priest.

In a Times-Union question and answer story last year, Graff said becoming a priest was a childhood goal and has been a privilege.

“I have always been deeply rewarded by becoming a trusted member of the families that I serve,” Graff said in the story.

The story identifies him at the time as executive director of the St. Photios National Shrine in St. Augustine and the president of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.

He received his bachelor’s degree at Hellenic College, a master’s in divinity at Holy Cross and a doctorate in ministry from Catholic University of America.

jim.schoettler@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4385