|MacRae Lobbied Writer
Columnist says priest was falsely convicted
By Daniel Barrick
For years, Gordon MacRae wanted to tell his story. He got his wish this week, in the pages of one of the country's most respected newspapers.
In a pair of sympathetic columns in the Wall Street Journal, MacRae, who was convicted of child rape more than 10 years ago, is described as the victim of false accusations and aggressive law enforcement officials. People in New Hampshire familiar with MacRae's case call the Journal's portrait slanted and inaccurate. While it's unclear whether the articles could ultimately lead to freedom for MacRae, they represent the fulfillment of a campaign by inmate and reporter to tell a story that's obsessed both of them for years.
"Five years ago, this germ was planted in my head that said 'something is going on here,' and it was firmly planted - it's been fermenting all that time," Dorothy Rabinowitz, the Journal editorial page writer, said in an interview yesterday. "There was never a single moment I thought that this was not worth pursuing."
MacRae, a suspended Roman Catholic priest, has been in New Hampshire State Prison since 1994, convicted of raping a 15-year-old boy. In the years after his conviction, MacRae's appeal to the state Supreme Court and counter-suits against his accusers hit dead ends. Through it all, MacRae maintained his innocence, even as he pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges involving three other adolescent boys. Officials from the Diocese of Manchester were wary about pursuing further appeals on MacRae's behalf, a stance that bothered him.
So in 2000, when he was contacted by a Wall Street Journal reporter known
for her work on wrongful sex abuse convictions, MacRae had good reason
to take note.
Rabinowitz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2001, said that she first learned about MacRae's case in 2000, when a Boston lawyer she knew mentioned it. Much of her writing focuses on cases where false claims of sexual abuse resulted in convictions.
She found the details of MacRae's case intriguing, Rabinowitz said, but she was also tired of writing about sexual abuse. Once she made her first contact with MacRae, however, he proved a dogged correspondent.
"He just sent endless letters, many of which I left unopened. In a sense, you have to have a hard heart," Rabinowitz said.
MacRae declined an interview request earlier this week. His lawyer has not returned phone calls.
Rabinowitz continued to look into MacRae's case over the next few years. She said she was struck by the fact that a few of MacRae's victims had accused other adults of sexual abuse at other points in their childhood.
"There were things in his case that were so far removed from the logic and the evidence that you find in other reports," she said.
Meanwhile, MacRae was pleading with church officials to take a more aggressive attitude toward his appeals. In letters to church officials, MacRae frequently mentioned Rabinowitz and Robert Rosenthal, a New York appellate attorney who specializes in false sexual abuse accusations. In his letters, MacRae indicated that the two might bring him the result he sought.
His entreaties seem to have had some effect. Father Edward Arsenault, spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester, said MacRae first mentioned Rabinowitz and Rosenthal as "advocates" for him in letters to diocesan officials around 2000.
"Gordon was looking for someone to take up his case," Arsenault said.
By November 2001, a diocesan lawyer urged McCormack to talk to Rabinowitz and Rosenthal "to get an independent reading" on MacRae's case. Arsenault said that church officials never ended up talking to Rabinowitz or Rosenthal, though there was an interest from the diocese "to find out what they had in mind, what they could do for Gordon."
Two months later, MacRae was seriously considering hiring Rosenthal. He wanted an attorney from outside New Hampshire because too many people involved in his conviction were still in the state's justice system. In a January 2002 memo to McCormack, MacRae said a friend had offered to pay Rosenthal's $5,000 retainer. In an interview yesterday, Rosenthal said he didn't take MacRae's case because he already had too much work at the time. But he said he remains convinced that MacRae was wrongly imprisoned and would consider investigating his case in the future.
Though diocesan officials remained supportive of MacRae throughout his imprisonment, internal documents show that there was little doubt within the church hierarchy about MacRae's guilt. In a memo dated March 12, 2001, Arsenault told McCormack, "Notwithstanding his protestations, I am no more convinced after my reading of this material that Gordon MacRae is 'innocent' than I was before. Absent some tangible evidence of the veracity of his claim, I am not convinced that there is an injustice in his conviction."
MacRae continued to boast of his relationship with Rabinowitz. Though the Monitor approached MacRae several times in 2002 and 2003 about interviewing him for an article, he repeatedly declined.
"I have also been approached by a journalist with a more national scope many months ago, and I do not feel it would be fair, given previous assurances, for me to now discuss my case with a local reporter,"MacRae wrote to the Monitor in April 2002.
Rabinowitz's stories have elicited strong responses from those involved in MacRae's case. Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker said, "If you're going to pick a poster child for the wrongfully accused, (MacRae) is not the one you want to pick. I'd be somewhat surprised if something came of these stories. There's no new information there that wasn't known at the time."
Rabinowitz said she's used to such criticism. She said nearly all of her stories are met with attacks on their credibility.
"But there's no question that I am reporting a huge and complex miscarriage, cover-up and will to bury people," she said.
She said she plans to visit MacRae in prison in the next few weeks, their first face-to-face meeting.
[Daniel Barrick can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 322, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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