The Prison of Father Macrae: a Conspiracy of Silence
These Stone Walls
February 27, 2014
Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a guest post by Ryan A. MacDonald. Part One was “The Trial of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Fraud.”
“I don’t share your belief in Father MacRae’s innocence. I just don’t believe a judge and jury would sentence a priest to life in prison with anything less than clear and compelling evidence.”
The above quote was the reply of a prominent American Catholic writer when I challenged him to take a closer look at the trial and imprisonment of Father Gordon MacRae. There is nothing to be gained by publishing the writer’s name. I still hope he might accept my challenge to study this matter with more depth than the New Hampshire news media and priests of the Diocese of Manchester have given it. I have asked the writer to show me the evidence he feels so certain must exist. He is wrong about this. There is simply no factual evidence to support this conviction.
But for some, the absence of evidence is evidence of evidence. That Catholic writer’s presumption about evenhanded justice and due process reflects the naivete of the innocent and just. I once shared such naivete, but I have since learned that ignorance is not bliss. I know too much about this case to cling to any delusions that everyone in prison must be guilty, or that a Catholic priest, while actually innocent, could not be railroaded into prison based on false witness.
So does The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz, one of the most just and courageous journalists I know. She has a talent for enabling readers to place themselves in the shoes of the falsely accused, and it’s a terrifying place to be. A recent article, “On Woody Allen and Echoes of the Past” (WSJ.com, February 9, 2014), had that same effect. It isn’t long, but it’s compelling and powerful.
Despite its title, the article’s great power is in its depiction of falsely accused men and women – such as Violet, Cheryl, and Gerald Amirault of Massachusetts and Kelly Michaels of New Jersey – who were ripped from ordinary lives to be tried and sent to prison because of trumped up charges, lots of media hype, and the ambitions of prosecutors.
No-Crueler-TyranniesThese same people were profiled in No Crueler Tyrannies (WSJ Books, 2005), a book by Dorothy Rabinowitz that has opened many eyes, including mine. She found a common denominator among those falsely accused and betrayed by the justice system during the “child terror” prosecutions of the 1980s and 1990s, the same era, and the same terror, that convicted Father MacRae. Rabinowitz wrote,
“Those who are falsely accused often naively believe that their innocence is obvious, that the allegations will be dropped.”
In “Judge Arthur Brennan Sentenced Fr Gordon MacRae to Die in Prison,” I wrote that plea deals work well for the guilty but not for the innocent. The guilty come before the justice system prepared to limit punishment by accepting any reasonable plea deal offered. The innocent cannot fathom such twisted justice, and therefore often spend far more time in prison than the guilty.
For preserving his right to a presumption of innocence and a fair trial – though he got neither, as you will see, from either Church or State – Father Gordon MacRae was sentenced by Judge Arthur Brennan to more than 30 times the sentence offered by prosecutors in the plea deal he refused. As I wrote in part one of this article last week, it is a perversion of justice that, had he been actually guilty, this priest would have been released from prison 17 years ago.
THE LIE DETECTOR DISASTER
In the above article, Dorothy Rabinowitz cited that some of the innocent accused were anxious to take lie detector tests (aka polygraphs). Those who passed them, however, did so to no avail as prosecutors refused to consider, or even hear, the results. Father MacRae also voluntarily submitted to two lie detector tests conducted by an expert who reviewed the claims of Thomas Grover and his brothers, Jonathan and David Grover, who also accused the priest for settlement money from his diocese. I have repeatedly called upon MacRae’s accusers to agree to lie detector tests, a challenge met only with silence.
Had Father MacRae failed the polygraphs administered before his trial, you can be certain that fact would have found its way into court, or at least into the newspapers. He passed them conclusively, but the results were ignored, and not only by state prosecutors. The most difficult act of suppression to comprehend came from his bishop and diocese.
Defense attorney Ron Koch (pronounced “Coke”) often appeared to be as naive and trusting as his client. He seemed to believe that the Diocese of Manchester might be more inclined to defend its priest if clarity about his innocence could be established. However passing pre-trial lie detector tests, and making that fact known, actually proved disastrous for the defense of Father MacRae.
Within weeks of the defense lawyer’s effort to have polygraph results reviewed by Church lawyers, the Diocese of Manchester issued a press release that inflicted a mortal wound to MacRae’s civil and canonical rights. Plastered in the news media throughout New England before jury selection in his trial, this press release destroyed his defense in the court of public opinion, and influenced jurors in the court of law:
“The Bishop and the Church are saddened by and grieve with the victims of Gordon MacRae…and he was ultimately removed from his status as one who could ever function as a priest again…The Church is a victim of the actions of Gordon MacRae as well as the individuals… [The Diocese] will defend its officials who have been falsely accused [and] it will continue to cooperate in bringing those who have harmed others to light.” (Bishop of Manchester Press Release, Sept. 11, 1993)
Canonical Advocate, Father David Deibel, J.C.L., J.D., protested this gross violation of Church law and civil liberties. He was reportedly told that the press release “was a carefully crafted statement meant to respond to media concerns” about the MacRae case. When defense attorney Ron Koch called to protest, he was told that Father MacRae was the sole priest to have been so accused in the Diocese of Manchester.
Nine years later, officials for the Manchester Diocese worked out a plea deal of their own to avoid a misdemeanor charge based on a theory of law the state’s Attorney General admitted was “novel.” The published files as a result of that deal revealed that 62 New Hampshire priests had been accused, and some $23 million changed hands in mediated settlements.??For his first six years in prison, 17 miles from the Chancery Office of the Diocese of Manchester, Father MacRae was summarily abandoned. The company line was that it was MacRae himself who refused to be visited in prison by any priest. The bitter refusal was reportedly issued through unnamed third parties who have never been identified. However, the prison’s Catholic chaplain during Father MacRae’s first years in prison saw this differently:
“I have been told by priests that Diocesan officials claimed that Father MacRae refused, through unnamed third parties, to be visited by a priest…During my tenure as chaplain, no one representing the diocese ever asked me to arrange a visit with Father MacRae [who] indicated to me he would welcome such contacts….It remains my belief that Father MacRae is for some reason viewed differently from other priests that are, or have been, incarcerated.” (Prison Chaplain John R. Sweeney, Sept. 20, 2004).
BISHOP’S DELEGATE MONSIGNOR EDWARD ARSENAULT
Two years ago, I wrote an article for Spero News entitled “To Azazel: Father Gordon MacRae and the Gospel of Mercy.” It was about some shockingly uncharitable conduct toward this imprisoned priest, but the offenders were not other prisoners trying to make names for themselves in the brutal prison culture. They were priests of the Diocese of Manchester.
In the year 2000, however, Diocesan interest in Father MacRae was radically altered when it became known that two media giants, Dorothy Rabinowitz at The Wall Street Journal, and PBS Frontline, expressed interest in the facts of this case. You may read for yourselves the manipulation aimed at this imprisoned priest, and the devastation of his rights in my article, “Bishop Takes Pawn: Plundering the Rights of a Prisoner Priest.”
Throughout this period, the official Delegate (2000 until 2009) for the Bishop of Manchester was Monsignor Edward Arsenault. His published resume reveals that he personally negotiated mediated settlements in 250 claims against Diocese of Manchester priests. At the same time, Monsignor Arsenault was wearing another hat – some might say a highly conflicting one.
While negotiating settlements in the MacRae case and hundreds of others on behalf of the Diocese of Manchester, Arsenault was also Chairman of the Board of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, an organization underwriting insurers of Catholic institutions and dioceses across the U.S. It is unclear which of these hats Monsignor Arsenault was wearing when he negotiated this typical round of mediated settlements described in David F. Pierre’s 2012 book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused:
“In 2002, the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, faced accusations of abuse from 62 individuals. Rather than spending the time and resources looking into the merits of the accusations, ‘Diocesan officials did not even ask for specifics such as the dates and specific allegations for the claims,’ New Hampshire’s Union Leader Reported. ‘Some victims made claims in just the past month and because of the timing of negotiations, gained closure in just a matter of days,’ reported the Nashua Telegraph. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’ a pleased and much richer plaintiff attorney admitted.” (Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, p. 80)
In 2001, Monsignor Edward Arsenault developed a policy statement for the Diocese of Manchester. As Bishop John McCormack’s Delegate, Monsignor Arsenault published the “Diocese of Manchester Statement of Rights and Obligations of Persons Accused of Sexual Misconduct.” The document was straightforward, and listed, in accord with Canon law and Diocesan policy, the rights of the accused and the obligations of the Diocese:
The Delegate (Monsignor Edward Arsenault) will:
Inform the person being interviewed of the process to be used;
Inform the person being interviewed what information will be shared with whom;
Inform the person being interviewed that he [the Delegate] is acting in the external forum on? behalf of the Bishop of Manchester;
Inform the person being interviewed that any and all information disclosed will be treated with discretion, but not subject to confidentiality…
Rights of the Person Accused: The accused cleric or religious has:
The right not to implicate oneself;
The right to counsel, civil and canonical;
The right to review the results of one’s own psychological evaluations;
The right to know what has been alleged and to offer a defense against the allegations;
The right to know and understand the review process;
The right to discretion in the conduct of the investigation and to have his/her good name protected.
Over the next three years as the Diocese of Manchester submitted individual cases to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, every tenet of the above statement of rights was silently ignored or outright violated by Monsignor Arsenault and officials of the Diocese of Manchester in regard to the case of Father MacRae.
No investigations took place. No interviews took place. The imprisoned priest’s repeated requests for details of what has been represented in Rome in regard to this case have been ignored, and no right of defense has been honored. The promised assistance of legal counsel was never acted upon. Repeated and documented requests from Father MacRae that Bishop John McCormack and Monsignor Arsenault agree to confer with his Canonical Advocate to assure his rights under Church law were refused.
In the ultimate insult, when Monsignor Arsenault finally did agree to consult Father Deibel, the canonical advocate, he reportedly told the priest that, should Father MacRae be involuntarily laicized, “I’m sure Bishop McCormack will still send him $100 a month” to survive in prison. The suggestion that this was MacRae’s sole concern for the future of his priesthood left him feeling humiliated and violated.
A promise by Bishop McCormack to set aside $40,000 for Father MacRae’s appellate defense – on the condition that he set aside contacts with Dorothy Rabinowitz and The Wall Street Journal – was instead used to hire counsel to bypass MacRae’s lawyers and investigators, and to conduct a secret review of his trial and any chance of overturning the convictions. To this day, Monsignor Arsenault and the Bishop of Manchester have ignored requests to share that review with the wrongly imprisoned priest’s defense team struggling to afford his day in court.
REMEMBER THOSE IN PRISON AS THOUGH IN PRISON WITH THEM (Heb. 13:3)
In 2009, Monsignor Edward Arsenault was appointed Executive Director of Saint Luke Institute, a nationally known facility in Maryland for the psychological treatment of priests. Bishop John McCormack was the sole U.S. bishop on the Saint Luke Institute Board of Directors at the time Monsignor Arsenault took leave from the diocese to assume the post with an annual salary of $170,000.
Earlier this month, on February 4, 2014, the news media announced that Monsignor Edward Arsenault has accepted a plea deal to plead guilty to three felony charges. He was indicted on multiple counts, and has agreed to plead guilty to the theft of thousands of dollars from the Diocese of Manchester while serving as Chancellor and Bishop’s Delegate, from Catholic Medical Center Hospital where he served on its Board of Directors, and from the estate of a deceased priest of the Manchester Diocese for which he served as Executor. According to news reports, the theft of funds from the Diocese of Manchester continued until 2013, four years after Monsignor Arsenault began his $170,000 a year post at Saint Luke Institute.
The plea deal Monsignor Arsenault has entered into forgoes trial and any testimony under oath. The exact number of felony charges and the exact amounts of stolen funds involved have not been made public, and possibly never will be. The New Hampshire Attorney General stated that the plea deal, and the minimum four year prison sentence Monsignor Arsenault has agreed to, are in “recognition of the extensive cooperation of the defendant,” and in anticipation of his continued cooperation in the ongoing investigation of “improper financial transactions.”
The investigation into financial wrongdoing was launched, according to news sources, when the Diocese began investigating a “potentially inappropriate adult relationship.”
For at least the next four years, Monsignor Edward Arsenault will share the same prison as Father Gordon MacRae, a priest who – armed only with the truth and his faith – refused plea bargains to face the cruelest of tyrannies, wrongful imprisonment. This is the priest against whom Monsignor Edward Arsenault and his prosecutorial friends have worked so arduously, and in secret, to undo and discard.
There is more to come in the twists and turns of this story. Meanwhile, please continue to respond to, and share with others, my recent post, “News Alert: Federal Appeal Filed in Fr Gordon MacRae Case.” It falls to us to mend this gaping wound in the side of our Church.
thermometerEditor’s Note: This concludes a two-part guest post by Ryan A. MacDonald. Part one was “The Trial of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Fraud.” Please also consult Ryan MacDonald’s recent post, “News Alert: Federal Appeal Filed in Fr Gordon MacRae’s Case.” Thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!