Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist takes up case of priest jailed in the US
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 Wall St 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.