27May 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.

9 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    At last the penny seems to be dropping. Despite the well-known dynamics of anti-pedophile campaigns, which regularly plunge into fanaticism, paranoia, a culture of suspicion and distrust, mob violence, and miscarriages of justice, groups like SNAP have invested totally in those dynamics. Priests, bishops and nuns have been hopelessly inarticulate and unable to stave off the tsunami of accusations. The reason for this is the culture of silence, discretion, secrecy, closetedness, and cowardice that prevails in clerical milieux. Self-deprecation and incapacity for any frankness about sexual feelings or behavior has tied priests especially up in knots, and they have sat fatalistically waiting for the next tumbril to arrive, instead of speaking up loudly and clearly. Bishops have sold priests down the river in their over-anxiety to be above legal suspicion.

  2. markdask

    I consider this article to be wholly inappropriate on this site. Irrespective of the innocence or otherwise of one priest – it would seem that by publishing this inciteful commentary the ACP is willfully dismissing decades of psychological and sexual abuse on the part of albeit a very small number of priests/bishops who thought themselves to be above the law of God and man. It may be that in America people will sue each other at the drop of a hat, but civil lawsuits are not an issue in Ireland, where up to quite recently a child born out of wedlock was actually treated as a bastard, and the mother no better. What is most definitely an issue is that for decades, when it became known to some bishops that individual priests were abusing children, they would simply move these priests on to another parish – and this was the status quo – with not a whit of regard for the abused. Rabinowitz’ article was written to get a response in readership – not in moral principle. And it is very wrong of you, Joe, to seek to mitigate the covert obsequence of bishops in past decades to the very real crimes committed. You mention “anti-pedophile campaigns which regularly plunge into fanaticism” – are you suggesting there might be something wrong in the idea of an anti-pedophilia campaign that focuses on a social sect that forever saw itself as above civil law? Were you not outraged to learn that the policy of sweeping child abuse in the church under the carpet even went as high as Ratzinger himself? You say “bishops have sold priests down the river” – its my impression, based on vast evidence, Keith O’Brien’s apology and resignation being most recent – that it was the whole church structure was doing the selling, and it was innocent kids and teenagers who knew no better than their priests who ended up down the river. Linking pedophilia and fanaticism is at the very least in bad taste – we are not America.


  3. Rory Connor

    Why is it left to a secular writer from the Wall Street Journal to defend a Catholic priest? Dorothy Rabinowitz was instrumental in discrediting the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria of the 1980s and I do hope (against hope) that she will be successful here. If she is, then Father MacRea could probably sue his own Diocese for libel and negligence!

  4. Rory Connor

    This is the extract from the Dorothy Rabinowitz article that I am referring to:
    ”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.”
    I am aware of at least one criminal trial of a priest in the USA – (Fr Paul Shanley)- where a juror commented that the fact that the Diocese had already “compensated” the accuser BEFORE the trial was a factor in their verdict of Guilty. The behaviour of the diocesan officials in the case of Father MacRae was even more repulsive.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    Another aspect of the witchhunt mentality is the constant reference to priests as “child rapists” — which might refer rather to an inappropriate gesture toward a 15 year old (one of the cases in the Murphy report); actual physical rape is not common among the accusations against clergy. The evidence of miscarriage of justice based on “recovered memory” fantasies (which Rory Connor sent to my website) against the notorious and demonized priests McRae and Shanley will not sway American juries, totally in the grip of the witchhunt thinking.

  6. Veritas

    Just to correct Joe O’Leary’s comment. He refers to anti- paedophile campaigns. Given the age profiles, post pubescent males, these should be correctly described as predatory homosexual and not paedophile.

  7. Joe O'Leary

    I agree with Veritas, but the campaign has freely used the word “pedophile” of all such priests, and the word “pedophile” carries a charge of irrational hatred that even “predatory homosexual” does not. Also, if I say that the priests in question were erring or immature gay men rather than constitutional pedophiles, I am jumped on from one side for smearing gays and from another for excusing pedophilia; it is no wonder that most people prefer to say nothing.

  8. Joe O'Leary

    Part of the identikit of pedophiles supplied by the instant experts was that they are incurable and if they offend once they will inevitably do so again. Then this was transferred to “ephebophiles” also. But “ephebophilia” merely means a preference for adolescents, not necessarily an exclusive or compulsive interest in them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephebophilia (Many adults who are not ephebophiles have sexual relations with minors, whereas it is hard to imagine an adult who is not a pedophile molesting children.)

    Anti-pedophile campaigns do a lot of damage (as suggested by the 2012 Danish film, “The Hunt”) but now they have been extended to the general image of the “pedophile priest”, which in fact chiefly refers to sexually normal priests (some of whom may have an ephebophile preference) who stray into illegal territory. The further stereotype of “child rapist” is another step along that trajectory of irrational demonization.

  9. Rory Connor

    (1) Why does markdask consider it inappropriate for an organisation of Catholic priests to speak out in favour of a priest who may well be innocent? The kind of allegations made against Fr MacRae would be considered ludicrous in an IRISH court e.g.
    ….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…..

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