WSJ on “The Trials of Father MacRae” – IMPORTANT

Falsely-accused Fr. MacRae blogs at These Stone Walls.

I bring to your attention this important article in the Wall Street Journal:

Rabinowitz: The Trials of Father MacRae
He was convicted when it was obligatory—as it remains today—to give credence to every accuser charging a priest with molestation.

By DOROTHY RABINOWITZ

Last Christmas Eve, his 18th behind bars, Catholic priest Gordon MacRae offered Mass in his cell at the New Hampshire state penitentiary. A quarter-ounce of unfermented wine and the host had been provided for the occasion, celebrated with the priest’s cellmate in attendance. Sentenced to 33½-67 years following his 1994 conviction for sexual assault against a teenage male, Father MacRae has just turned 60.

The path that led inexorably to that conviction would have been familiar to witnesses of the manufactured sex-abuse prosecutions that swept the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s and left an extraordinary number of ruined lives in its wake. Here once more, in the MacRae case, was a set of charges built by a determined sex-abuse investigator and an atmosphere in which accusation was, in effect, all the proof required to bring a guilty verdict. But now there was another factor: huge financial payouts for victims’ claims.

That a great many of the accusations against the priests were amply documented, that they involved the crimes of true predators all too often hidden or ignored, no one can doubt.

Neither should anyone doubt the ripe opportunities there were for fraudulent abuse claims filed in the hope of a large payoff. Busy civil attorneys—working on behalf of clients suddenly alive to the possibilities of a molestation claim, or open to suggestions that they remembered having been molested—could and did reap handsome rewards for themselves and their clients. The Diocese of Manchester, where Father MacRae had served, had by 2004 paid out $22,210,400 in settlements to those who had accused its priests of abuse.

The paydays did not come without effort. Thomas Grover—a man with a long record of violence, theft and drug offenses on whose claims the state built its case against Father MacRae—would receive direction for his testimony at the criminal trial. A conviction at the priest’s criminal trial would be a crucial determinant of success—that is, of the potential for reward—in Mr. Grover’s planned civil suit.

The 27-year-old accuser found that direction from a counselor at an agency recommended by his civil attorney. During Mr. Grover’s testimony, this therapist could be seen (though not by the jury) standing in the back of the courtroom. There, courtroom observers noted, and it is a report the state disputes, she would periodically place her finger at eye level and slowly move it down her right cheek—a pantomime of weeping. Soon thereafter Mr. Grover would begin to cry loudly, and at length.

Thomas Grover’s allegations were scarcely more credible than those of the 5- and 6-year-olds coaxed into accusations during the prosecutions of the day-care workers—children who spoke of being molested in graveyards and secret rooms. The accuser’s complaints against Father MacRae were similarly rich, among them allegations that few prosecutors would put before a jury. In a pretrial deposition, Mr. Grover alleged that Father MacRae had “chased me through a cemetery” and had tried to corner him there. Also, that Father MacRae had a gun and was “telling me over and over again that he would hurt me, kill me if I tried to tell anybody.” The priest had, moreover, chased him down the highway in his car.

Though jurors would hear none of these allegations, which spoke volumes about the character of this case, there was still the problem, for the prosecutors, of the spectacular claims Mr. Grover made in court—charges central to the case. Among them, that he had been sexually assaulted by Father MacRae when he was 15 during five successive counseling sessions. Why, after the first horrifying attack, had Mr. Grover willingly returned for four more sessions, in each of which he had been forcibly molested? Because, he explained, he had come to each new meeting with no memory of the previous attack. In addition, Mr. Grover said, he had experienced “out of body” episodes that had blocked his recollection.

In all, not the sort of testimony that would bolster a prosecutor’s confidence, and there was more of the kind, replete with the accuser’s changing stories. Not to mention a considerable history of forgery, assault, theft and drug use that entered the court record, at least in part, despite the judge’s ruling that such facts were irrelevant. In mid-trial, the state was moved to offer Father MacRae an enticing plea deal: one to three years for an admission of guilt. The priest refused it, as he had turned down two previous offers, insisting on his innocence.

Still, the jury trial would end with a conviction in September 1994, and a sentence equivalent to a life term handed down by Judge Arthur Brennan. That would not be all. The state threatened a new prosecution on additional charges unless the priest pleaded guilty to those, in exchange for no added prison time. Without funds and unable to hire a new lawyer, already facing a crushing sentence and certain, given the climate in which he would face a second trial, that he could only be convicted, Father MacRae accepted the deal.

In due course there would be the civil settlement: $195,000 for Mr. Grover and his attorneys. The payday—which the plaintiff had told the court he sought only to meet expenses for therapy—became an occasion for ecstatic celebration by Mr. Grover and friends. The party’s high point, captured by photographs now in possession of Father MacRae’s lawyers, shows the celebrants dancing around, waving stacks of $50 bills fresh from the bank.

The prospect of financial reward for anyone coming forward with accusations was no secret to teenage males in Keene, N.H., in the early 1990s. Some of them were members of that marginal society, in and out of trouble with the law, it fell to Father MacRae to counsel. Steven Wollschlager, who had been one of them—he would himself serve time for felony robbery—recalled that period of the 1990s in a 2008 statement to Father MacRae’s legal team. That it might not be in the best interest of a man with his own past legal troubles to give testimony undermining a high-profile state prosecution did not, apparently, deter him. “All the kids were aware,” Mr. Wollschlager recalled, “that the church was giving out large sums of money to keep the allegations from becoming public.”

This knowledge, Mr. Wollschlager said, fed the interest of local teens in joining the allegations. It was in this context that Detective James McLaughlin, sex-crimes investigator for the Keene police department, would turn his attention to the priest and play a key role in the effort to build a case against him. The full history of how Father MacRae came to be charged was reported on these pages in “A Priest’s Story,” April 27-28, 2005.

Mr. Wollschlager recalled that in 1994 Mr. McLaughlin summoned him to a meeting. As a young man, Mr. Wollschlager said, he had received counseling from Father MacRae. The main subject of the meeting with the detective was lawsuits and money and the priest. “All I had to do is make up a story,” Mr. Wollschlager said, and he too “could receive a large amount of money.” The detective “reminded me of my young child and girlfriend,” Mr. Wollschlager attests, and told him “that life would be easier for us.”

Eventually lured by the promise, Mr. Wollschlager said, he invented some claims of abuse. But summoned to a grand-jury hearing, he balked, telling an official that he refused to testify. He explains, in his statement, “I could not bring myself to give perjured testimony against MacRae, who had only tried to help me.” Asked for response to this charge, Mr. McLaughlin says it is “a fabrication.”

Along with the lure of financial settlements, the MacRae case was driven by that other potent force—the fevered atmosphere in which charges were built, the presumption of innocence buried. An atmosphere in which it was unthinkable—it still is today—not to credit as truthful every accuser charging a Catholic priest with molestation. There is no clearer testament to the times than the public statement in September 1993 issued by Father MacRae’s own diocese in Manchester well before the trial began: “The Church is a victim of the actions of Gordon MacRae as well as the individuals.” Diocesan officials had evidently found it inconvenient to dally while due process took its course.

A New Hampshire superior court will shortly deliver its decision on a habeas corpus petition seeking Father MacRae’s immediate release on grounds of newly discovered evidence. The petition was submitted by Robert Rosenthal, an appellate attorney with long experience in cases of this kind. In the event that the petition is rejected, Father MacRae’s attorneys say they will appeal.

Those aware of the facts of this case find it hard to imagine that any court today would ignore the perversion of justice it represents. Some who had been witnesses or otherwise involved still maintain vivid memories of the process.

Debra Collett, the former clinical director at Derby Lodge, a rehabilitation center that Mr. Grover had attended in 1987, said in a signed statement for Father MacRae’s current legal team that she had been subject to “coercion and intimidation, veiled and more forward threats” during the police investigation because “they could not get me to say what they wanted to hear.” Namely, that Mr. Grover had complained to her of molestation by Father MacRae. He had not—though he had accused many others, as she would point out. Thomas Grover, she said, had claimed to have been molested by so many people that the staff wondered whether “he was going for some sexual abuse victim world record.”

For Father MacRae’s part, he has no difficulty imagining any possibility—fitting for a man with encyclopedic command of the process that has brought him to this pass: every detail, every date, every hard fact. Still after nearly two decades this prisoner of the state remains, against all probability, staunch in spirit, strong in the faith that the wheels of justice turn, however slowly.

Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

A version of this article appeared May 11, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Trials of Father MacRae.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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30 Responses to WSJ on “The Trials of Father MacRae” – IMPORTANT

  1. wmeyer says:

    Those priests who betrayed their mission by molesting adolescents are evil

    Those sinners who accused falsely, for the monetary rewards, are evil beyond measure. Father MacRae is not the only priest whose accuser appears to have been in it for the money. Of all the dioceses which were plundered, the most culpable appears to be Los Angeles, where at least half of the accusers were never challenged, much less investigated.

    I pray for Father MacRae, and for all those priests falsely accused, who carry their crosses with dignity.

  2. VexillaRegis says:

    wmeyer: You put it very well, thank you.

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  4. chantgirl says:

    I frankly don’t understand how this was even brought to trial, as no physical evidence is mentioned, no polygraphs, no witnesses to the alleged crimes. How could a jury have no reasonable doubt in this case? Is this a situation of anti-Catholic bigotry?

  5. Cantor says:

    It seems unusual that Father says Mass in his prison cell. Did the Church try him as well and find him innocent of the charges? Could information from that trial be introduced in civilian court?

    Chantgirl – 18 years ago the accepted mantra was that children never lie about such things. Just ask the McMartin Preschool staff.

  6. wmeyer says:

    chantgirl, I think that the approach to the accusation of priests in such cases is best viewed as identical to the hysteria which accompanied the witch trials. Or that of St. Joan.

    The verdict is predetermined; it remains only to fit the testimony to the verdict. One way or another.

  7. Hidden One says:

    Chantgirl, Fr. MacRae did undergo multiple polygraph tests. According to them, he is innocent.

  8. rodin says:

    There have been a number of cases that have caused me to question the justice of our judicial system.

  9. Charles E Flynn says:

    The Wikipedia article Day-care sex-abuse hysteria has an external link (bottom of the page) to an interview with author Dorothy Rabinowitz.

  10. Basher says:

    rodin said:

    There have been a number of cases that have caused me to question the justice of our judicial system.

    I was involved one time in a minor civil lawsuit, and just that experience convinced me that the justice system is anything but just. Do whatever you must to stay out of it. It destroys everyone who falls into its maw.

  11. benedetta says:

    It reminds me of the long and difficult road “Hurricane” Carter had to endure to establish his innocence.

  12. StJude says:

    I had never heard of this case. Wow. I dont understand how anyone could do this to another human being…. especially a Priest.

  13. Matt R says:

    If you were unfamiliar with Fr MacRae’s case beforehand, make sure you read his blog as well as the blog of Fr George Byers, who comments here as Holy Souls Hermitage.

  14. donato2 says:

    This topic is of interest to me not because the accused is a priest. There are thousands — literally thousands — of innocent people who are in prison today due to false sexual molestation. No one can say with any precision how many there are. However, studies have shown that between 6% and 35% of sexual molestation convictions are of innocent people. The sentences that they are serving are typically very long . It should be a national scandal but it isn’t because the hysteria that leads to these false convictions prevails over our culture generally.

  15. I have just spent a considerable amount of time reading about this and I find the cowardice that seems to permeate even the highest levels of our Church very disturbing. I hope the next generation of bishops takes an entirely different approach to things and makes a pointed effort not to imitate the example of our leaders of perhaps the last 100 years. Sometimes the Church behaves no differently than a multinational conglomerate– sometimes she behaves no differently than her sworn enemies. If that doesn’t stop, why should she have any credibility? What can we do to rid ourselves of this corporate mentality once and for all?

  16. Liz says:

    This IS important and I am glad you posted it, Father Z. Fr. MacRae’s case is so important. The injustice in his case is mind-boggling, and we have to do all we can to get him out of prison. Fr. MacRae has suffered out of love for Holy Mother church, and he has done amazing things both inside and outside of the prison walls. Simply for that reason we must pray and do all we can for Fr. MacRae. I hope people will pray for him and donate to his defense on his website.

    But it seems that there is so much more behind all of this as is being discovered and unraveled over at http://holysoulshermitage.com/ I think of what Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote:

    from http://thesestonewalls.com/about/
    Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005:

    “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.”

    I think the “someday” that Cardinal Dulles referred to is here. I am happy that this seems to be finally receiving a wider audience and for the many people who have helped get out this story.

  17. StJude says:

    Matt R. Thank you.. I will read up.

  18. catholiccomelately says:

    I pray about theses situations often: for those who are falsely accused and imprisoned, that they be vindicated. For those who have committed heinous acts out of the sight of others, that they be brought to justice on this earth or by the Father; for those who have been violated, that they may be succored by the Father; for those who have falsely accused others, that they may repent; and for all of us, that the mercy and justice of the Father may be our guide and our hope.
    Father Mc Rae, may God continue to strengthen and uphold you.

  19. jeff says:

    I “shared” the WSJ article on Facebook in order to boost the article’s stats and let the “powers that be” know that a lot of people are very unhappy about this travesty of justice.

  20. Joseph-Mary says:

    I think Father M. has saved many souls through the great suffering that he has endured without losing his faith.

  21. iowapapist says:

    I have spent most of my career defending indigent people accused or convicted of crimes. One thing that I have learned is not to expect justice in this life. Although our American system of justice is perhaps the best on earth, it carries with it the vulnerabilities of mankind. Most people are all for an aggressive system of justice until they, or someone they know, are being prosecuted. They then find out that the system is incredibly skewed toward the prosecution and that fairness is an unrealized goal. How many times have you heard people say, with disgust,” “he got off on a technicality” ? A “technicality” is the law. For example, a citizen whose home is searched without a search warrant. These “technicalities” seek to limit the power of government. Unfortunately, our judge-made law has eviscerated many of our constitutional protections. As time goes by, our protection from arbitrary prosecution is being eroded (while we sleep).

  22. Gladiatrix says:

    It seems to me that the most interesting comment on the WSJ article is that posted by Nelson Dixon who provides a complete chronology of documents showing that complaints against Father MacRae date all the way back to the 1970s. Whilst there may well be questions about this particular case and the way in which it was conducted Father MacRae is far from wholly innocent.

  23. MarcAnthony says:

    My suggestion is not to look at the articles beneath the comments. They’re appalling.

  24. Cathy says:

    Regarding documented evidence, my sister, a nurse, when my godson was eight years old, he broke his leg. She took him to his final doctor’s appointment where they removed the cast. My sister expressed concern that she thought it might be too early. As opposed to making a future appointment, they told her it would be fine. She peeked at his chart, only to find written that she was advised that the cast was being removed early, but, that she insisted they remove it that day. Had any problem ensued, it would be her word against “documented” evidence.

  25. Back pew sitter says:

    The years of Father MacRae’s imprisonment will bear rich spiritual fruits, as I am sure he knows well. Even if things are covered up in this world a full account will be given one day in eternity, and he will earn the reward for his faithfulness. God bless Father MacRae and strengthen him in his trials. May good come from his suffering.

  26. Maltese says:

    There is only one thing worse than committing child sexual abuse, and that is falsely being accused of committing child sexual abuse. As an ex-prosecutor, I would rather see 100 guilty men go free, than 1 innocent man convicted.

  27. yatzer says:

    From my experiences with courts, although mercifully limited, I no longer speak of a justice system, but a legal system. I haven’t seen much justice.

  28. Kathleen10 says:

    Iowapapist, I agree with you. Justice in this world is not guaranteed, or even likely. That is really shocking to those of us who grew up saying “That’s not FAIR!” and so on. Being “fair” is what should happen, and how upsetting when we see that life doesn’t work that way, what is “fair” may not happen at all, and what’s worse, others may not even care at all about what is fair for another.
    I hate to say this, but, this is why most of us become money-grubbing slaves. Money is the great equalizer of what is unfair. Money can solve alot of problems. If any of us had one million dollars to help out poor Father McRae, you can absolutely bet he would be out of that cell right quick. Money gives us access to those people who either make life a hell (lawyers) or make life ok again (lawyers). The high-powered ones want to see the money first. But, they are often the crony of the judge, the ones that go out to lunch with him, so, somehow they get their client the best shot. We all want that, and without money, you likely won’t get it.
    It’s a stinking, rotten reality.
    People with money often say things like “money isn’t everything”, but, without money life is HARD, and if injustice comes, it’s going to get even harder.
    If those in the know think Father McRae truly is innocent, then there ought to be a Fund set up for people to donate money, even if it’s twenty dollars each. That can obtain some good lawyer’s interest, and as I said, if someone had a million dollars, Father would soon be out.

  29. chantgirl says:

    Gladiatrix, are you referring to the link to bishop-accountability.org? The link contained disturbing information, if true. However, I could not ascertain who runs the site. Is it SNAP? In that case, I would be much more suspicious of the content. I don’t know. Two different pictures of this man are being portrayed. He is either a saint in the making, or he is a manipulative monster. Hopefully, this can be sorted out and if he is innocent, his name cleared.

    Shame on all of the priests who were real victimizers, and the bishops who dropped the ball or covered up crimes. You have made an environment possible in which the innocent are already branded guilty, and the faithful are suspicious of our shepherds.

  30. PostCatholic says:

    I realize this an old thread. But I think a reading of the documents involved might illuminate a different perspective than that of Ms. Rabinowitz’s polemic above. You can find an extensive archive at bishopaccountability.org.

    I feel that MacRae’s convictions were proper but that his sentence is unnecessarily long and severe.