A Priest's Story
The trial of Father Gordon MacRae

By Dorothy Rabinowitz
Wall Street Journal
April 27, 2005

[This essay was published by the Wall Street Journal in two parts on 4/27/05 and 4/28/05. A few days later, it was posted on the Journal's as a single connected Web page, with other changes from the print version, as noted below. The text that we post is from the print version. Part One, on this page, is called The trial of Father Gordon MacRae. See also Part Two: The conviction of Father Gordon MacRae.]

     Nine years after he had been convicted and sent to prison on charges of sexual assault against a teenaged boy, Father Gordon MacRae received a letter in July 2003 from Nixon Peabody LLP, a law firm representing the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. Under the circumstances—he was a priest serving a life term—and after all he had seen, the cordial-sounding inquiry should not perhaps have chilled him as much as it did.

     ". . . an individual named Brett McKenzie has brought a claim against the Diocese of Manchester seeking a financial settlement as a result of alleged conduct by you," the letter informed him. There was a limited window of opportunity for an agreement that would release him and the Diocese from liability. He should understand, the lawyer added, that this request didn't require Fr. MacRae to acknowledge in any way what Mr. McKenzie had alleged. "Rather, I simply need to know whether you would object to a settlement agreement."

     Fr. MacRae promptly fired a letter off, through his lawyer, declaring he had no idea who Mr. McKenzie was, had never met him, and he was confounded by the request that he assent to any such payment. Neither he nor his lawyers ever received any response. Fr. MacRae had little doubt that the stranger—like others who had emerged, long after trial, with allegations and attorneys, and, frequently, just-recovered memories of abuse—got his settlement.

     By the time he was taken off to prison in 1994, payouts for such claims against priests promised to surpass the rosiest dreams of civil attorneys. The promise was duly realized: In 2003, the Boston Archdiocese paid $85 million for some 54 claimants. The Portland, Ore., Archdiocese, which had already handed over some $53 million, declared bankruptcy in 2004, when confronted with $155 million in new claims. Those of Tucson and Spokane soon did the same.

     Fr. MacRae's own Diocese of Manchester had the distinction, in 2002, of being the first to be threatened with criminal charges. According to the New Hampshire Attorney General's office, the state was prepared to seek indictments on charges of child endangerment. To avert prosecution, the diocese signed an agreement much publicized by the AG's office, acknowledging that it was likely that the state could obtain a conviction. (Attorneys familiar with the issue had their doubts about that.) Meanwhile, claims and payments continued apace. By the end of 2004, the Diocese audit showed a total of $22,210,400—thus far—in settlements.

     That the scandals which began reaching flood tide in the late '90s had to do with charges all too amply documented, and that involved true predators, no one would dispute. Nor can there be much doubt that those scandals, their nonstop press coverage, and the irresistible pressure on the Church to show proof of cleansing resulted in a system that rewarded false claims along with the true. An expensive arrangement, that—in more ways than one.

*     *     *

     No one would be more aware of that than Gordon MacRae, whose infuriated response to the Nixon Peabody attorney included reference to "the settlement game." He didn't trouble to mention the cost the game had exacted in his case. For the last few years, he has shared a seven-and-a-half by 14 foot cell with one other inmate at the New Hampshire State Penitentiary. For this, he is thankful as only a prisoner can be who had had the experience of being housed, his first five years in prison, with eight men in a cell built for four. Every inmate ever placed in such a cell lives in fear of having to return and he is no exception, he notes. Still it had been easier on him than some around him.

     "I had an interior life—others had less."

     At St. Bernard Parish in New Hampshire, the patient, energetic young Fr. MacRae was the one chosen for work with troubled teenagers, invariably assigned to drug addiction centers. Through it all he remained oblivious to snares that might lie in the path of a priest for the young and needy. He was soon to be educated.

     In the spring of 1983, 14-year-old Lawrence Carnevale cried bitterly upon learning that Fr. Gordon, whom he adored, was to move to another parish, and threw himself onto the priest's lap. He made phone calls to Fr. Gordon at his new parish. Within a few months, the youth told his psychotherapist that Fr. Gordon had kissed him. Three years later—expelled from his Catholic High School for carrying a weapon—he told a counselor that the priest had fondled him and run his hands up his leg. At roughly the same time, he accused a male teacher at St. Thomas High School of making advances to him, then made the same allegation against his study hall teacher at Winnacunnet High School. Police Detective Arthur Wardell, who investigated, concluded in his report that this was a young man who basked in the attention such charges brought him, and that there was no basis to them.

     Lawrence Carnevale nonetheless had more revelations of abuse a decade later. In 1993, he alleged that Fr. MacRae had held a gun on him, and had forced him to masturbate while licking the barrel. Clearly, his narrative of trauma had undergone extraordinary transformation. Prosecutors and their experts invariably explain such dazzling enrichment in the charges as being the result of an accuser's newfound courage. They would have occasion to make numerous explanations of this kind throughout Fr. MacRae's trial. Though Lawrence Carnevale's own case would not come before a court, his charges would play their role in bolstering a 1994 criminal case brought against the priest. He would have the satisfaction, as well, of hearing the presiding judge cite the torment and lifelong pain Lawrence Carnevale had suffered at the hands of Fr. MacRae.

*     *     *

     A decade earlier, his stories had also had their effect on Fr. MacRae, who was unnerved by them, depressed by the suspicions they raised. He had no idea of the disturbances yet to come. In 1988, 17-year-old Michael Rossi, a patient at the Spofford Chemical Dependency Hospital, asked to meet with him. Not long into their talk, which was supposed to be about his addiction, the man became agitated, exposed himself, and began telling him about his other sexual encounters at the hospital. Fr. MacRae walked quickly away, his memories of the Carnevale accusations still fresh, and declared he was about to open the door—a threat that chastened the patient enough to zip up. Before walking away, though, he had a final, warning query for the priest: "This was confession, right?"

     Gordon MacRae now recalls the words with some wryness, though at the time he was far from sanguine. He discussed the incident with his superiors, along with his fears about having to disclose, to police, details of an encounter the Spofford patient had declared a "confession." Msgr. Frank Christian offered reassurances. Fr. MacRae was suspended nevertheless, pending an investigation. Two months later, state police who conducted an investigation declared the case unfounded and closed it—which did little to keep the Spofford incident from feeding the suspicions of Detective James McLaughlin, sex crimes investigator for the Keene police department, then just beginning what was to become a considerable career in his field, particularly for his stings involving child molesters.

     Other factors, too, had played their role in focusing his attention on the priest, not least a letter sent by a Catholic Youth Services social worker after the Spofford Hospital incident. The letter informed the investigator of authoritative information the worker had received that Fr. MacRae was a suspect in the murder and sex-mutilation of a Florida boy. It was a while before word from Florida police, revealing the story as bogus, caught up with the social workers and police in Keene. Meanwhile, Detective McLaughlin was busy interrogating some 22 teenage boys whom Fr. MacRae knew or had counseled. Despite determined, repeated questioning, he could find no one with any complaints about the priest.

     He did, however, have teenager Jon Plankey, who claimed that Father MacRae had attempted to solicit sex from him. The charges stemmed from a convoluted conversation in which the Plankey boy, saying he would do anything for the money, asked for a loan of $75, which Fr. MacRae declined to give. Jon Plankey had already made a molestation complaint against a Job Corps supervisor, and would go on to charge a church choir director. He also charged a man in Florida with attempted abuse.

     As the Plankey saga showed, the role played by the prospect of financial settlement from the church tended to announce itself with remarkable speed. Jon Plankey's mother worked for the Keene Police. Even before Fr. MacRae was aware of the accusations, the then-Msgr. (now Auxiliary Bishop) Frank Christian received a call from Mrs. Plankey informing him that she had learned that Fr. MacRae was being investigated on solicitation charges involving her son, and that a settlement would be in order if the diocese were to avoid a lawsuit and lawyers. The Plankeys [sic] claims were duly settled out of court (after added claims that the priest had taken pornographic pictures of Jon).

     Fr. MacRae, summoned to meet with Detective McLaughlin, was informed that there was much evidence against him—including the Spofford Hospital incident—that the police had an affidavit for an arrest, and that it would be in everybody's best interest for him to clear everything up and sign a confession. On the police tape, an otherwise bewildered-sounding Fr. MacRae is consistently clear about one thing—that he in no way solicited the Plankey boy for sex or anything else. "I don't understand," he says more than once, his tone that of a man who feels that there must, indeed, be something for him to understand about the charge and its causes that eludes him. On a leave of absence from his duties at the parish, depressed over the return of undiagnosed seizures in the recent year—which had not plagued him since early childhood—he listens as the police assure him that he can save all the bad publicity.

*     *     *

     "Our concern is, let's get it taken care of, let's not blow it out of proportion. . . . You know what the media does," they warned. He could avoid all the stories, protect the church, let it all go away quietly. At one point Fr. MacRae asked for the recorder to be turned off for a moment, lest his answer to questions about a male parishioner's visit to him embarrass a woman in the community. From here on the interview continued unrecorded. As far as Fr. MacRae could see, the police had knowledge of a terrible wrong he had done the Plankey boy that could endanger him, psychologically, for life. He recalls that when he thought to ask for a lawyer—a request Detective McLaughlin denies, today, that Fr. MacRae made—he was told that would only muddy the waters. Here was his opportunity to take care of things, avoid arrest, an eruption of media attention damaging to the church. After four hours of interrogation, Fr. MacRae agreed to sign a statement that he had endangered the welfare of a minor, a misdemeanor. Before affixing his signature, he saw that the detective had added the names of three more boys. Nobody, he was told, is going to believe you solicited just one boy.

     Shortly after, Sgt. Hal Brown, Detective McLaughlin's partner in the interrogation, alerted reporters to the confession, via a press release, which produced the inevitable storm of media publicity, "Though no sexual acts were committed by MacRae," it noted, "there are often varied levels of victimization." The release went on to commend Officer McLaughlin for his excellent work.

Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal's editorial board. This is the first of two parts, the second of which appears tomorrow.

[A Note on the Text: The Wall Street Journal posted this essay as a single page on its Web page on Saturday, April 30, 2005 at 12:01 a.m., several days after the print edition, with some alterations. As of September 7, 2011, the web version is no longer on the Wall Street Journal webpage. The text posted above is the original text as it appeared in the print edition. The version posted on the Internet changed the subtitles of the essay:

In the print edition, the subtitles of the two parts were:

The trial of Father Gordon MacRae.


The conviction of Father Gordon MacRae.

In the posted version, the essay was titled:


A Priest's Story
Not all accounts of sex abuse in the Catholic Church turn out to be true.

These changes are significant, because they explicitly connect the MacRae essay, as its print version had not been connected, to Ms. Rabinowitz's recent book No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times (New York: Wall Street Journal Books, published by Free Press, 2003).

The posted version of the essay differs from the print version in other less important ways: the judge who sentenced MacRae in 1994 is called "the Hon. Arthur D. Brennan" in print, but just "Arthur D. Brennan" in the posted version; a few nonsubstantive words have been changed; Fr. has been changed to Father; and names, numbers, hyphens, and capitalization have occasionally been handled differently. Again, the version above reproduces the text of the print edition.]







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