Justice and a Priest's Right of Defense in the Diocese of Manchester

By Ryan A. Macdonald
The Ram in the Thicket
October 21, 2013

By Ryan A. MacDonald

A right of defense for accused priests is supported on paper in the Diocese of Manchester, but in one case it has been suppressed and obstructed at every turn.

I became quite familiar with the scene above during a short trip this past summer. A nice 4-hour drive from New York took me along Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River.  From Brattleboro, Vermont (locals call it "Brat") I drove east on Route 9 for 18 miles to the picturesque City of Keene, New Hampshire and its much admired downtown Main Street.

Keene is a small city with a population of about 23,500 - not counting the 5,000 students enrolled in Keene State College.  The social and economic hub of southwest New Hampshire, it boasts the widest Main Street in the United States, and its bustling downtown collection of quaint and busy shops, restaurants, a theatre, offices, and concerts on the Keene Commons is the envy of many cities its size.  Keene's downtown begins at the doors of St. Bernard Church, today part of a three-parish community known as the Parish of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Bernard Church and Rectory are depicted above. The building in the background is Saint Joseph RegionalCatholic School (grades K to 8). The entire complex is bordered on the left by the bustling campus of Keene State College, and on the right by busy downtown Keene. Across the wide, heavily traveled Main Street from the rectory is the region's largest and busiest U.S. Post Office, a pizza take-out, and a convenience store conducting a brisk college town business 24/7.

Just above is a closer view of the Main Street driveway between Saint Bernard Church and Rectory.      It's a scene I wanted to see for myself, and was the reason for my summer drive to Keene.  Note the flat roofed adjunct just to the left of the building.  It was added on at some point to the large old mansion that became St. Bernard Rectory.

The rounded doorway on the building's left side was in 1983 the rectory's main business entrance. Just to its left is a large window. In 1980, a closed circuit television camera was installed just above that door because the rectory had been the scene of a number of urban burglaries and an armed robbery or two.  In the late 1970s, two priests and the pastor's elderly mother were tied up in the rectory basement while the house was ransacked and robbed in the middle of the night.

On the other side of that door in the 1980s was the desk of a receptionist and secretary staffed in two shifts from 9:00 AM until 9:00 PM.  There was also a waiting area for parishioners wanting to see one of the four priests assigned there in the early 1980s, and for daily clients of the region's busy St. Vincent DePaul Society seeking assistance with food, clothing, and emergency shelter.

On the right of the church building just across the narrow driveway from the rectory was the most heavily used entrance and exit for parish activities. These doorways to the church and rectory were the busiest places in or around that parish church.  The photo above was taken very early in the morning.  At virtually any other time, it is a hubbub of activity.

Note the large window just to the left of the rectory's main entrance with its monitoring TV camera.  It was just behind this highly visible office window - in full view of the daily hustle and bustle of Main Street traffic and the steady stream of visitors into and out of this busy rectory and church - that 27-year-old Thomas Grover claimed that he was four times sexually assaulted by Father Gordon MacRae between April and November of 1983.

It was here behind this highly visible window where Grover claimed that in the months just prior to his 16th birthday he sought MacRae out for counseling for his drug addiction, but instead was threatened, berated, made to cry, and then raped.  It was here that 220-pound Thomas Grover claimed to have returned four times from week to week unable to remember the sexual assaults he claimed to have occurred during previous visits. 

Like so many who have looked at this case, I was aghast when I first became familiar with the details of the trial of Father MacRae.  I wrote of this trial in an article entitled "Judge Arthur Brennan Sentenced Fr Gordon MacRae to Die in Prison." As The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote recently in "The Trials of Father MacRae":

"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."

Once I became aware of the facts of this case, I had to see for myself exactly where this was all claimed to have taken place. What I saw in the scenes depicted above is a compelling visual to accompany something Attorney Robert Rosenthal included in his appeal briefs to the New Hampshire courts:

"In what the petitioner asserts has been revealed as a scam to obtain a cash settlement from the Catholic church, Tom Grover, a drug addict alcoholic and criminal, accused Father Gordon MacRae of molesting him years before.  Grover's civil suit - featuring MacRae's conviction - earned him nearly $200,000.  No witnesses to the alleged acts could be found, despite that they were to have occurred in busy places. Grover's claims were contradicted by objective facts (e.g. inoperable locks that he claimed worked, acts in an office to which MacRae did not have access, claims about a chess set that had not [yet] been purchased)."

Thomas Grover claimed that these assaults occurred in this office commencing in April 1983 and ending just as he turned 16 years old in mid-November 1983.  Father Gordon MacRae did not arrive at St.Bernard Church until mid-June 1983, and did not have access to this particular office because it was occupied by another priest until the end of July 1983.  Upon learning this pre-trial, Grover then vaguely moved one of his claimed assaults to an adjacent busy office to which MacRae also had no access that summer.

In the summer of 1983, St. Bernard Rectory employed a full and part-time staff of twelve, including the four priests who lived in this house, and a total staff of 25 parish and school employees all coming and going throughout the day and evening.  And yet, the prosecution produced not a single witness to these acts. No one ever testified to seeing Thomas Grover there. No one ever opened the door to admit him, or saw him leave. No one ever claimed to have heard anything. A lock Grover claimed that MacRae used to secure the office door had been dismantled and painted over years before the priest arrived. An ornate marble chess set Grover claimed was inside that office during the assaults was not purchased by the priest until three years later in 1986.  Today, Grover's former wife, Trina Ghedoni says that Grover admitted to her that he perjured himself throughout the MacRae trial, and said he offered perjured testimony about the chess set because "it was was he was told to say."

The one person who could have helped to inform this appellate defense - Father Robert Biron, a prominent pastor in the Diocese of Manchester - refused to help. The above scene was his office several years before MacRae arrived, and again for several more years after MacRae left St. Bernard's.  Father Biron might have spoken to the improbability of much of what had been claimed.  He might have described the painted over office door lock that didn't work, the shade on the office window that wasn't there in 1983, the absence of air conditioning requiring that this office window remain wide open to the scene overlooking the main entrance and busy Main Street throughout summer months.

Father Robert Biron might have attested to the traffic; to the noise of people coming and going, noise that easily penetrated that office door in both directions. He might have attested to the waiting area just outside that office door, and its steady stream of people.  But he refused.  In his answer to Father MacRae's plea as the investigation for this appeal began, Father Biron wrote on his official Our Lady of Fatima Parish stationery,

"I can't be of any help to you, and don't see the necessity of entertaining any further correspondence from you." (Letter of Father Robert Biron, January 19, 2009)

I wrote of this letter and others from priests of Fr. MacRae's diocese in "To Azazel:  Father Gordon MacRae and The Gospel of Mercy." Father Biron's cold letter was received by the imprisoned priest just after the Bishop of Manchester at the time, now retired Bishop John McCormack, insisted to Vatican officials and others that he and the Diocese of Manchester fully support Father MacRae's right of defense.

Earlier, Bishop McCormack offered Father MacRae $40,000 toward an appellate defense, but with conditions: he wanted the diocese to choose MacRae's lawyers, wanted the priest to sever all contact with Dorothy Rabinowitz and The Wall Street Journal, and wanted him to agree not to review the history and merits of this case, appealing only his sentence and not the convictions.  Bishop McCormack then reneged on his offer in a grueling and cruel "stringing along" of this imprisoned priest that I described in detail in "Bishop Takes Pawn: Plundering the Rights of a Prisoner-Priest."

When Fr Gordon MacRae was on trial in 1994, and the prosecution finished presenting its case, which consisted of nothing more than Thomas Grover's hysteria and evasiveness, Judge Arthur Brennan instructed Fr MacRae not to take the stand in his own defense or else the judge would open the door for Thomas Grover's brothers to testify to their own false claims brought in civil suits.  Fr MacRae was the only person never heard from in this trial.

When Judge Arthur Brennan sentenced Fr MacRae to more than 30x what had been offered in a plea deal, the judge never permitted Fr MacRae to speak.  Now, today, both New Hampshire courts receiving this appeal have dismissed it without Fr MacRae being allowed to utter a word. Even in the Diocese of Manchester, the Bishop presented Fr MacRae's case for dismissal to the Holy See without Fr MacRae even knowing what was put forward or having any opportunity to defend himself.  Fortunately, to date, the Holy See has not seen fit to act solely on such unilateral information. The silence forced upon Fr Gordon MacRae has been deeply unjust and this case must move forward and be fully heard.

What are they all afraid of?


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