|Writer Takes Up
Convicted Priest's Case
Wall Street Journal articles say MacRae forced to confess
By Daniel Barrick
A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal said yesterday that Gordon MacRae, a New Hampshire priest convicted of child sexual assault a decade ago, is the victim of "a corruption of the justice system."
MacRae was convicted in 1994 of raping a 15-year-old boy at a Keene church. He later pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting three other boys. He is serving a 33½- to 67-year sentence at the state prison.
In two articles that appeared on the newspaper's editorial page Wednesday and yesterday, Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the Journal's editorial board, contends that MacRae was wrongly convicted of the rape and bullied into signing false confessions. In an interview yesterday, Rabinowitz depicted MacRae as the victim of false accusations, overzealous law enforcement and church officials who put fear of bad press ahead of the welfare of their priests. Above all, Rabinowitz said, cases like MacRae's are driven by lawyers looking to make money.
"People have to come to understand that there is a large scam going on with personal injury attorneys, and what began as a serious effort has now expanded to become a huge money-making proposition,"Rabinowitz said. "These things have a life of their own. In a climate where there was a great wish to cleanse and punish priests, people were swept up; a judge was swept up."
In her articles, Rabinowitz offers little new evidence to exonerate MacRae. Rather, she focuses on the personal stories of MacRae's accusers, a group she describes as emotionally troubled and prone to exaggeration. And she describes MacRae's case as a "dark fiction,"in which a well-meaning, "vulnerable" priest fell prey to opportunistic young men and their lawyers.
"The patient, energetic young Fr. MacRae was the one chosen for work with troubled teenagers, invariably assigned to drug addiction centers," Rabinowitz writes. "Through it all he remained oblivious to snares that might lie in the path of a priest for the young and needy."
People familiar with MacRae's case described Rabinowitz's account as highly subjective in its use of facts.
"I think she started off believing he was innocent and selected bits and pieces to support her position,"said Keene Detective James McLaughlin, who investigated many of the accusations against MacRae. "She's ignoring an incredible amount of fact to do so. Ultimately, a jury sat and dealt with live witnesses and testimony and decided differently."
The Rev. Edward Arsenault, a spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester, said: "I find it interesting that her article appears on the opinion page. It is a selective presentation, an incomplete picture, informed by Mrs. Rabinowitz's opinion."
McLaughlin said Rabinowitz dwelled on the bad behavior in MacRae's victims' pasts, rather than on the allegations of abuse from nearly a dozen accusers. Rabinowitz mentions a 13-year-old Hampton boy who accused MacRae of kissing him in 1983. MacRae was associate pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Hampton at the time. Rabinowitz relates the boy's subsequent troubles in school and describes his allegations against MacRae as growing increasingly elaborate over the years.
But she does not mention that MacRae admitted kissing the boy when asked about it by a church official a few months after the incident, before the police got involved. According to diocesan records, MacRae said he was under the influence of alcohol at the time.
Rabinowitz also refers to another accuser who said MacRae propositioned him for sex in 1989. While Rabinowitz writes that the boy's charge stemmed from "a convoluted conversation" and describes him as a chronic accuser, she fails to mention a 1991 letter in which MacRae admits making the proposition.
Judge Arthur Brennan, who presided over MacRae's trial, said Rabinowitz's story "characterizes the situation in a way that is so different than my recollection. Things are a lot more complicated than they appear in the article."
"It doesn't hurt for people to look twice at what the government does," Brennan added. "But I'm not at all concerned about my impartiality or the jury's, either."
Through a spokesman at the Department of Corrections, MacRae declined an interview request yesterday. MacRae's lawyer, Eileen Nevins, did not return a phone call.
Asked if she believed MacRae was innocent of any sexual abuse against minors, Rabinowitz said, "I don't want to make declarations. But it's as good as to say the trial and allegations were based on a corruption of the justice system."
Specifically, Rabinowitz said prosecutors, juries and investigators like McLaughlin were too eager to believe the tales told by alleged victims and ignored the corrupting influence of the promise of large monetary settlements.
"Allegations were changed to suit the contentions of a lawsuit,"she said. "And this happens repeatedly and repeatedly. The explanation is that children who have been abused do this all the time. But the chronology presents problems that can't be overcome."
Mark Abramson, an attorney who represented one of MacRae's victims, said Rabinowitz misunderstood the atmosphere at the time that many of MacRae's victims came forward in the mid-1990s.
"That was not a time when everyone else was coming forward about being abused by priests,"Abramson said. "She's trying to suggest that there was a piling on, but it was a lot harder to come forward at that time than now. I'm not suggesting no one has ever made up some allegation, but Gordon MacRae is the most clear-cut case I've seen of this kind of thing."
Rabinowitz, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, has written frequently about false sexual abuse claims. She published a book last month titled No Crueler Tyrannies, which recounts several cases in which false accusations resulted in convictions.
She said she became interested in MacRae's case several years ago, after reading testimony from his 1994 trial. Many of the accusers'tales struck her as unbelievable. She has maintained a steady correspondence with MacRae for about five years, she said.
"I think he's stunned," she said yesterday. "It's been so long. He wanted to take the stand (in his trial) and has never himself told his story."
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