Travesty of Justice: The Ordeal of Fr. Gordon MacRae

By Fr. Gordon J. Macrae
These Stone Walls
September 10, 2014

[with video]

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by William Donohue, Ph.D., President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, to mark the 20th anniversary of the unjust imprisonment of Father Gordon MacRae.

His troubles began in 1983. Father Gordon MacRae was working at a clinic for drug-addicted youths in New Hampshire when a 14-year-old told his psychotherapist that the priest had kissed him; there was nothing to the story, so nothing came of it. Three years later, when the young man was expelled from a Catholic high school for carrying a weapon, he started telling his counselor how MacRae had fondled him. It turns out that the adolescent was quite busy at the time making accusations: he said two male teachers also molested him. An investigation into all of these cases was made, and they were all dismissed.

Ten years after the first charges against MacRae were tossed, the same man resurfaced with new accusations. The preposterous nature of the charges meant they would go nowhere, but as fate would have it, they would nonetheless play a role in helping to bolster a criminal charge against MacRae one year later.

It wasn’t over for MacRae, not by a long shot. In 1988, a teenager at a hospital that treats drug abusers told the priest about sexual encounters he allegedly had at the hospital and then exposed himself. MacRae, taking no chances, reported this to his superiors. While they believed him, they nonetheless suspended him pending an investigation. But the effect that this incident had on a local detective was not sanguine. In fact, he proved to be a zealot who made it his duty to get all the goods on MacRae, even to the point of making some details up.

The detective went on a tear interrogating nearly two dozen boys whom MacRae had counseled—looking for dirt—but he came up empty. Then MacRae met a teenager who worked for the detective in a “family-owned business,” and whose mother worked for the police. The young man said MacRae had molested him after the priest turned him down for a loan of $75; the same teenager was accusing others of abuse. Under considerable pressure to end this ordeal—MacRae had no legal counsel and was interrogated for four-and-a-half hours—he signed a statement saying he had endangered the welfare of a minor. The detective, who wanted more, said, “though no actual molestation took place, there are various levels of abuse.” It must be noted that the accuser refused to speak to an FBI investigator about what happened, and his own brother said the whole thing was “a fraud for money.” This was the last time MacRae would allow himself to be framed.

It is not a matter of opinion to say the detective was obsessed with MacRae: the evidence convinced independent observers that he was. For example, when the priest received letters claiming he had abused a male youth, little did he know that the detective had authored the letters for the accuser. Also, it was learned subsequently that a witness signed a statement saying the detective had given him cash, offering “a large sum of money” to make a false claim against MacRae (this happened just before his trial). Word on the street was that the Catholic Church was writing checks to get accusations of priestly abuse off its desk, a process that kept feeding the next frenzy. MacRae was caught up in it, and his superiors were ever quick to clear themselves.

On September 23, 1994, MacRae was shackled and led out of Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene, New Hampshire. He had been convicted by a jury of sexual assaults that allegedly happened nearly twelve years earlier. The 41-year-old priest was sentenced to a prison term of 33 1/2 to 67 years.

MacRae says he is innocent. So do those who have looked into his case. Count me among them. “I did not commit these crimes,” MacRae says. “In fact, no one did.” Pointedly, he maintains that he wasn’t the one on trial. “The priesthood itself was on trial. No evidence whatsoever was introduced to support the claims. My accuser committed a $200,000 fraud, the amount in settlement he received from my diocese.”

No one has covered this story better than Dorothy Rabinowitz, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. MacRae’s accuser, Thomas Grover, has a history of theft, drugs, and violence. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the ordeal that MacRae has endured. He provided not a single witness, even though the alleged offenses took place in populated areas; the places were so busy that it is unlikely that no one would notice if something were awry. Moreover, Grover was coached by professionals, people more interested in getting a priest than justice. His attorney put him in touch with a counselor who came in quite handy. She stood at the back of the courtroom during Grover’s testimony, away from the sight of the jury, instructing him when to feign crying. On cue, he cried loudly, often at some length.

In the pretrial hearing, Grover went into high gear. He said MacRae chased him through a cemetery, trying to corner him. The priest also allegedly pointed a gun at Grover, threatening him if he told anyone about their encounter. Not to be outdone, MacRae supposedly chased Grover down the highway in his car.

At the trial, Grover said MacRae sexually abused him when he was 15-years-old during five episodes. Rabinowitz captures the essence of what was really going on. “Why, after the first horrifying attack,” she asks, “had Mr. Grover willingly returned for four more sessions, in each of which he had been forcibly molested? Because, he explained, he had come to each new meeting with no memory of the previous attack.” If this is not preposterous enough, the accuser said he had “out of body” experiences that blocked his recollection. Just as we might expect, Grover conveniently changed his story many times.

Before the trial, MacRae had twice been offered a plea deal, but he turned them down. Midway through the trial, he was offered another opportunity. It sounded reasonable: plead guilty and the sentence is one to three years; refuse and risk spending decades in prison. He refused for a third time. The trial moved forward and he was found guilty. The sentence was obscene: it was thirty times what the state had offered in the plea bargain.

Why do I believe MacRae is innocent, a veritable modern-day Job who has been treated unjustly by the authorities, both ecclesiastical and civil? MacRae and I have been writing to each other for years, and I have read his account many times. The clincher year for me was 2012: recently discovered evidence emerged (now part of on-going court proceedings) that showed how utterly manipulative the accuser is. To be specific, signed statements by the accuser’s family and friends demonstrate that Thomas Grover admitted to them that he lied about everything; they have also spoken about his reaction after the trial ended.

Grover’s former wife and stepson say that he is a “compulsive liar,” “manipulator,” “drama queen,” and “hustler” who “molded stories to fit his needs”; he could also “tell a lie and stick to it ’till his end.’” When he was confronted with his lies, he would lose his temper and sign himself into the psychiatric ward at a local hospital.

The former wife and stepson testify that Grover bragged how he was going to set up MacRae and “get even with the church.” What was said is worth repeating at length:

“Grover would laugh and joke about this scheme and after the criminal trial and civil cash award he would again state how he had succeeded in this plot to get cash from the church. On several occasions, Grover told me that he had never been molested by MacRae…[and] stated to me that there were other allegations, made by other people against MacRae and [he] jumped on and piggy-backed onto these allegations for the money.”

Grover’s former wife, who acknowledges that he “never stated one word of abuse by [MacRae],” knew early on in their marriage that something was wrong. She had two daughters when they met, and both were frightened of him from the start. They saw him as a “sick individual who was obsessed with sex and teenage girls”; thus did they label him a “creep” and a “pervert.” They recall that he was “constantly eying” and groping them. When they woke up in the middle of the night, they would sometimes find him in their room, between their beds, staring at them.

It was also recently disclosed that the detective who had earlier hounded MacRae was guilty of badgering witnesses, misrepresenting what they said, offering inaccurate reports, and even collaborating with Grover’s civil lawyer. No wonder that another detective, a former FBI investigator, exonerated MacRae. “During the entirety of my three-year investigation of this matter,” James M. Abbott said, “I discovered no evidence of MacRae having committed the crimes charged, or any other crimes.”

When the trial was over, and Grover got a check for over $195,000 from the Diocese of Manchester, he photographed himself with $30,000 in cash. He bragged to his buddies, with bags of cash in his hands, that he had succeeded in “putting it over on the church.” That was in March 1997. In August, he took his former wife with him to Arizona where he blew it on alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, and other vices. In a three-day gambling spree, he went through $70,000 and he even had a Nevada casino hunting him down for another $50,000.

MacRae arrived in prison on September 23, 1994. He did not know it at the time, but it was the Feast of Saint Padre Pio, himself the subject of false allegations of sexual abuse. A dozen guards in riot gear surrounded him, forcing him to stand naked in the middle of them for an hour while they laughed at him. “For the first three nights while locked alone in a cell with nothing—naked and with no bedding but a bare concrete slab—tiers of prisoners stomped their feet in unison chanting, ‘Kill the Priest’ for hours on end into the night. It was maddening.” Prayer allowed him to persevere. “I lifted the cross willingly—though perhaps then more like Simon of Cyrene than like Christ—but I lifted it.”

Should MacRae have accepted the three plea deals? He never regrets saying no. As he sees it, “to succumb to a negotiated lie was like falling under the weight of the cross of false witness for the first, second, and third time.” Incredibly, even in prison, he is still the target of those seeking to shake him down, looking for the Church to fork over more money. In 2003, he was accused by another man of molesting him many years earlier. But MacRae had never even heard of this guy, so he instructed his lawyer to challenge the accusation. He did, and neither MacRae nor his lawyer ever heard from him and his attorney ever again.

December 23, 2006, MacRae calculated that he had been a priest for 4,125 days before he was sent to prison. He then tallied the number of days he had been in prison and came to the realization that on the very next day he would be a priest in prison longer than in freedom. “For the first time in 4,125 days in prison, I sobbed uncontrollably at this realization. I was losing myself.”

MacRae’s despair was relieved the next day when a Conventual Franciscan priest, Father Jim McCurry, visited him in prison. He gave him a laminated “holy card” depicting Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a member of Father McCurry’s order in whose cause for sainthood he had been involved as a Postulator. To this day, Kolbe’s historic story provides much inspiration to MacRae, as well as to countless others. The Polish priest gave his life in a Nazi death camp so that the life of another innocent person, a young father, would be spared.

Father Gordon J. MacRae does not aspire to be in the same league with Father Kolbe. That is not the point. The point is that his ordeal, like that of Kolbe’s, is born of grave injustice. There are so many guilty parties to this travesty it is hard to know where to begin. At work is maliciousness, callousness, apathy, and cowardice.

Please keep Father MacRae in your prayers. We can never give up hope.

William A. Donohue began his teaching career in the 1970s working at St. Lucy’s School in Spanish Harlem. In 1977, he took a position as a college professor teaching at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. In 1980, Bill was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University.

Bill is the author of five books and many articles. His first book, The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union, was published in 1985. His second book, The New Freedom: Individualism and Collectivism in the Social Lives of Americans, was written while Bill was a Bradley Resident Scholar at The Heritage Foundation; it appeared in 1990. Bill’s third book, Twilight of Liberty: The Legacy of the ACLU, was published in 1994; a new afterword to this book was published in 2001. His fourth book, Secular Sabotage: How Liberals are Destroying Religion and Culture in America, was published in 2009. Bill’s latest book, published by Image, a Random House imprint, is Why Catholicism Matters: How Catholic Virtues Can Reshape Society in the 21st Century.

Bill is the President and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization. The publisher of the Catholic League journal, Catalyst, he served for two decades on the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars, and continues to guest lecture every year at New York University’s Fulbright program for Ph.D’s from around the world.

Bill also serves on the board of advisors of the Washington Legal Foundation, the Educational Freedom Foundation, the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, Catholics United for the Faith, the Jewish Action Alliance, Ave Maria Institute, the Christian Film & Television Commission, Project Moses, Catholic Citizens of Illinois, The Georgetown Academy, Catholics Come Home, The Coalition to Save Iraqi Christians, and the Advisory Committee for In addition, he is a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Catholic War Veterans, and is an Honorary Member of the Catholic Social Workers National Association. He also serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.

Winner of several teaching awards, and many awards from the Catholic community, Bill has appeared on thousands of television and radio shows speaking on civil liberties and social issues.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.