As a New Year Begins, Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?

By Gordon MacRae
Spero News
January 1, 2011

The following was written in 2010, which the Catholic Church noted as the "Year of the Priest." It continues to have relevance.

Civil liberties for Catholic priests are in grave jeopardy from both outside and Inside the Catholic Church. The state of affairs was best summed up by Catholic League President Bill Donohue. Appearing on a segment of NBC’s “Today” show awhile back, Donohue faced off against a pair of contingency lawyers who were amassing their fortune drumming up claims against Roman Catholic priests on a national scale. The lawyers’ agenda that day was to gain support for extending civil statutes of limitations so Catholic Institutions can be sued long after current laws would permit. Bill Donohue had the only memorable sound bite on the program, and the “About” page on These Stone Walls begins with that quote:

“There is no segment of the American population with less civil liberties protection than the average American Catholic priest.”

I am here to tell you that Bill Donohue spoke the truth that day, and he did so with the courage and candor for which I and many others have come to admire him. I want to write about what he said, and about why I believe it is true. I write from the point of view of my own experience.

If some of what I write here is challenging for Catholics to read, let me begin with an assurance. At no point in my entire ordeal of the last sixteen years have I ever placed my own well being above the Mission and welfare of the Church. There came a point in 2002 at which I was very close to putting aside my own effort for justice because of a concern for just that appearance. I realized that continuing to fight my case in a public forum could mean taking positions that place me in stark confrontation with Church officials. A number of priests have lashed out in public anger at the Church during this crisis. I will not be joining them.

Rather than risk taking public and vocal positions against the decisions of Church officials, I wrote my bishop a private letter in 2002. In that letter, I told him that I am innocent of the claims for which I am in prison, but I would withdraw my defense and remain silently in prison for the remainder of my life if he asked me to do this for the good of the Church. Short of that, I wrote, I will continue to fight this unjust case by every means available to me.

Bishop John McCormack later told me that he considered my overture. To his credit, he said that he could not ask me to surrender my civil and canonical rights. I respect my bishop for this. It was the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue who convinced me that staying the course of truth and justice is not only in my best interest, but that of the Church as well.

When he heard of my overture to my Bishop, Dr. Donohue wrote:

“Remember that what will always be of service to the Church is the truth. Pursue the whole truth, and you are pursuing what is best for the Church.”

I will always be appreciative to Bill Donohue for that basic and essential piece of guidance.

The story of how this matter was being addressed at the time of my letter to my Bishop is revealed in a new document on These Stone Walls, and it makes for a good preface for the rest of this post. “Report on the Status of the Case” can be found under “Case History: Part IV” above. If you want some idea of the incredibly uphill climb that a wrongly accused priest faces in the current milieu, please read that document.

Some people actually get angry with me when they hear of my 2002 statement to my Bishop. Some feel that I was foolish to make such an overture. “What if he took you up on it?” My response is simple. I was accused falsely, and in the context of being a Roman Catholic priest. If I was not a priest, I would not have been accused. To pretend that somehow the claims against me are not related to the context of my priesthood is false. This is something that most Church officials long recognized, but many have put aside the rights of priests in open disregard of Church law.


I admire Greg Erlandson, Publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He has written some insightful editorials on the sex abuse crisis, and his writings have been entirely free of the dissent and blaming that have disgraced so many other publications, secular and Catholic alike. In the May 30th edition, the OSV Editorial Board has a terrific editorial entitled “Scalp Hunting.” The writer pointed out the fixation The New York Times has had with the Catholic Church of late, concluding what most clear thinking people now conclude: “The Times is coming across as a little bit obsessed.” OSV is sometimes a model of understatement.

The basis for the editorial was an accusation in The New York Times that “the Catholic Church is working against the interests of child abuse victims in state legislatures around the country.” The Times was referring to the fact that the Church in the United States opposes bills in several states that would extend civil statutes of limitations so that Catholic institutions, especially, can be sued long after current laws allowing such suits have expired.

Passage of such bills would bankrupt diocese after diocese across the country because there would be no end to the unproven claims that would float to the surface demanding settlements. The U.S. bishops’ opposition to these bills is a good sign that they have finally caught on to the relationship between accusations against priests and the enticement of guaranteed financial settlement.

This as a very big deal, and the very existence of the Catholic Church in the United States could be at stake. It’s a big deal because it’s a matter of basic justice and equal protection under the law. States should not be allowed to single out the Catholic Church as some sort of special locus of child abuse because that would not be the truth. In “Due Process for Accused Priests,” I think I made a good case for why such bills should not pass:

“The prison system in which I have spent the last fourteen years houses nearly 3,000 prisoners. Estimates of those convicted of sexual offenses range from 25 to 40 percent. This translates into a population of 1,200 sex offenders in this one prison with thousands more in the state’s parole system or otherwise monitored by the state as registered sex offenders. Three among these [6,000] convicted men are Catholic priests … The thousands of other men convicted of sexual abuse are accused parents, grandparents, step-parents, foster parents, uncles, teachers, ministers, scout leaders, and so on, and for them the typical time lapse between abuse and the victim reporting it was measured in weeks or months, not years, and certainly not decades.”

Having spent the last [now] sixteen years in this prison, I have become aware of certain things that fly in the face of what The New York Times and some contingency lawyers are trying to sell you on a daily basis. I have learned that children are in far more danger in some of their homes and schools than they are, or ever have been, in any Catholic church. I have learned that the vast majority of the men in prison for molesting children are married men. This issue has nothing whatsoever to do with celibacy despite dissidents’ insistence on using it for their own agendas.

I have also learned that only Catholic priests, and no one else, face claims of sexual abuse that are decades old. Among the thousands of men who have passed through this prison for sexual abuse charges – many serving short sentences because of plea deals – I have never heard of a single other case of a man facing charges that were many years or decades old. This happens solely to Catholic priests, and it’s because of the enticement of money.

I have also learned that none of the demonizing priests and bishops have endured for eight years has anything to do with protecting children. And I have learned a good deal more. I learned that when the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the Diocese of Manchester came to an agreement seven years ago to waive the rights of all accused priests, there was not a single case that was current. The most recent case being addressed at the time was a decade old, and that stood out among other claims going back 20 to 50 years.

While this witch hunt unfolded, I became aware – as every prisoner here Is aware – of a dozen cases of men who served their sentences for child sexual abuse, got out of prison, and then created new victims In the here and now while under the supervision of the State either through parole or state mandated sex offender registration. I want to know who’s auditing the State’s child protection procedures while the State is hunting down fifty-year-old claims against priests.


The May 30th OSV editorial, “Scalp Hunting,” made a very good case for why extensions of civil time limits for new lawsuits should not be allowed. The bishops – OUR bishops – are doing their duty by opposing such unjust and reactionary laws and they deserve our support for this effort.

But there is a problem, and it is a BIG problem. The very same bishops who rightly and justly oppose extensions of time limits for lawsuits against the Church have also aggressively lobbied the Holy See for retroactive dispensation from the time limits of “prescription.” In effect, prescription is a statute of limitations of sorts In Church law during which a “delict” (a crime) exists and a priest can face punishment for it. Here is a dismal case In point.

One of my very good friends – I’ll call him Father Jim – is 74 years old. He has been an exemplary priest for going on fifty years. In 1992, he was accused of an incident involving a 16-year-old girl that was claimed to have occurred in 1972. Father Jim denied the incident, but admitted to poor judgment when he once hugged this girl. He said that if he touched her breast, as she claimed 20 years later, it was not intentional. Father Jim had not a single other such claim in his history.

In 1992, Father Jim’s bishop convinced him that settling the claim for the demanded $40,000 was the easiest solution, and Father Jim was asked to go along. He did. He also agreed to leave parish ministry and spent the next ten years working as a priest in an urban hospital. The incident was forgotten.

Until 2002, that is, when the Dallas Charter resulted in Father Jim’s name being released as a “credibly” accused sex offender. He was banished from any ministry and told to leave the premises of the rectory where he stayed with three other priests. Today, at age 74, Father Jim lives alone in a rented room in an urban rooming house. Last year, he was subjected to a canonical trial in the case for which “prescription,” the Church’s own statute of limitations, expired decades ago. Most recently, S.N.A.P. representatives have demanded that Father Jim’s bishop publish Father Jim’s address. The bishop said he is considering such a step.

Justice requires that the bishops not argue the statute of limitations issue from two polar opposite positions according to how it suits their own interests. I am not saying this to be a dissident or to be seen in confrontation with the Church. I am saying this because I love the Church, and this double standard is destined to be the next wave of the scandal. If revised and retroactively applied statutes of limitations are unjust in civil law, they are just as unjust in canon law. As Archbishop Charles Chaput wisely wrote in First Things, (“Suing the Church,” May 2006) “Statutes of limitations exist in legal systems to promote justice, not hinder it.”


Early in the 2002 crisis, Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote a landmark article for America magazine, “The Rights of Accused Priests.” In the eight years to follow, what Cardinal Dulles called the Church to adhere to has evaporated. The first action taken today when a priest is accused is to minimize his priesthood and separate him with as much distance as possible from the support of his diocese and the life of the Church.

This is what makes the possible outcome of forced laicization a cruel and deeply unjust conclusion. When a priest has been accused from so long ago that the claims cannot be proven, his forced removal from the clerical state connotes a pretense that accusations against him are unrelated to his being a priest. That is rarely ever the case. I was put in harm’s way because I am a Catholic priest, and because it is widely known that claims against priests, however ancient, are lucrative.

Even prison guards see this point. Prison guards are often accused of wrongdoing in the context of their work as prison guards. One asked me one day how the Church defended me. I told him that the Church did not defend me at all, that from the moment I was accused I was suspended and entirely on my own for both finding and funding a defense. He was appalled, and said that no sane person would ever work in a prison if that was what happened when guards were accused.

I was accused for only one reason: a long practiced policy of quietly settling all claims against Catholic priests regardless of merit to keep publicity to a minimum. This was the first insight of “A Priest’s Story,” the two-part analysis of the case against me meticulously researched and reported by Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal in 2005. The lure of money, and corporate decisions to settle every claim, now drive the scandal. As Ryan MacDonald wrote in a recent issue of The Catholic World Report, “Greed ranks right up there with lust among the Seven Deadly Sins.”

This practice now involves mediated settlement procedures that place all priests at risk for false claims. I described how this occurred in my own Diocese in my most recent Catalyst article, “Due Process for Accused Priests” (July/August 2009). I have been told that this article should be read by every priest. It can be easily emailed from “Catalyst On-line” on the Catholic League website.


This Year of the Priest, along with the previous fifteen, have not exactly been for me the ideal of a priestly life I wrote of when I described my ordination in “Pentecost in the Year of the Priest.” Priesthood landed me in prison, and, despite what the local papers have sensationalized, it wasn’t because of something I have done.

I have written of some of the triumphs in prison, and many of the more poignant moments of grace, but most of these have not been a result of anything I did. There have been low points too, times of darkness so dark that I did not think I could bear them. Some of my friends suggested that I end the Year of the Priest with an assessment of priesthood in the valley where I live, and not just on the mountaintop of triumph. I’ve written some of this already. Have you read “The Dark Night of a Priestly Soul”?

If not, please do and please pass it along to others. Perhaps it should be among the enduring legacies of the Year of the Priest. As one person wrote to me, “The Dark Night of a Priestly Soul” needed to be written, and no other priest but you could write it.” That meant a great deal to me, but I have no way to know if it’s true.

What is to be the legacy of the Year of the Priest? I think I can only answer that by telling you where it leaves me. When Ryan MacDonald wrote “To Azazel: The Gospel of Mercy in the Diocese of Manchester,” he described the lowest point for me, not only of the Year of the Priest, not only in all of my sixteen years in prison, but in the entire 28 years of my priesthood.

The priests whose attitudes Ryan MacDonald described have no understanding of how tenuous their own rights are when mine could be so easily trampled upon.

Fortunately for them – though they do not see it as fortune – they have not been accused. They have no sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Still, there have been times when I think of them, and of other priests I know, and I am grateful this happened to me and not them. I have survived thus far. I believe that many of my brother priests would not have survived this.

There is no more difficult place to be a Catholic priest than in prison. There is no one more closely watched by other prisoners and guards alike, ready to zero in on any hint of despair or anger, any sign of a loss of faith, any unpriestly slip-up whatsoever. For sixteen years, I have had to be prepared to be taunted, talked about, ridiculed – even beaten and doused with human waste in my first weeks here – all without ever showing a glimmer of retaliation, hatred, or despair. There is no faking priesthood in prison, and there is no faking faith.

There’s no faking innocence either. I have been in a fishbowl in prison for sixteen years with men barely older than the age my accuser was when he claimed that I assaulted him during 1983 counseling sessions. I have had assigned cellmates who were barely out of their teens. In sixteen years of living in such close proximity, there has not been a single claim, not even a hint of a claim, that I would ever be inclined toward such misconduct. And there is no hiding such a thing here. This was best summed up – in “On the Record“- by a now retired prison chaplain:

“Many, particularly the younger inmates in Father MacRae’s living unit, are quite vulnerable to predators. In ten years, I have never seen or heard in any form anything that would suggest he was ?ever involved in any way with any type of inappropriate behavior including that which his accusers attributed to him.”

But the lack of evidence isn’t evidence of anything at all. That has been the very heart of the issue all along. There has never been any evidence beyond the word of persons who stand to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars from making such claims. Yet, they are spontaneously believed while the priests they accuse are condemned just as spontaneously.

As the Year of the Priest draws to a close, the cruelest tyranny of all is best summed up in something Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in “A Priest’s Story.” It is that thing that I fear the most, more than false witness itself, more than prison, more than the endless demonizing aimed in my direction. It is the end of priesthood itself, and the fact that it can be taken from me even as I lay here in prison slowly dying, suffocating under the avalanche of agendas and rhetoric that mark the sex abuse crisis in the Church.

“His tone is, as usual, vibrant, though shading to darkness when he thinks of the possibility of his expulsion from the priesthood — a reminder that there could be prospects ahead harder to bear than a life in prison.” ?Dorothy Rabinowitz, “A Priest’s Story,” The Wall Street Journal, April 27/28, 2005.

And it is for priesthood alone – not for freedom, not for vindication – that I must fight for the truth to my dying breath. If priesthood was not worth such effort, why have a Year of the Priest at all?

“But the goat upon which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel …

… And when he has made an end of atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, and all their sins, and he shall put them on the head of the goat and send him away into the wilderness … to a solitary land.” Leviticus 16:10, 20 – 22)

Thus ends The Year of the Priest.


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