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A Priest's Story

 
The Wall Street Journal
27 April 2005 page A 14
 
A Priest's Story
 
By Dorothy Rabinowitz
 

Nine years after he had been convicted and sent to prison on charges of sexual assault against a teenaged boy, Father Gordon MacRae received a letter in July 2003 from Nixon Peabody LLP, a law firm representing the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. Under the circumstances -- he was a priest serving a life term -- and after all he had seen, the cordial-sounding inquiry should not perhaps have chilled him as much as it did.
 
". . . an individual named Brett McKenzie has brought a claim against the Diocese of Manchester seeking a financial settlement as a result of alleged conduct by you," the letter informed him. There was a limited window of opportunity for an agreement that would release him and the Diocese from liability. He should understand, the lawyer added, that this request didn't require Fr. MacRae to acknowledge in any way what Mr. McKenzie had alleged. "Rather, I simply need to know whether you would object to a settlement agreement."
 
Fr. MacRae promptly fired a letter off, through his lawyer, declaring he had no idea who Mr. McKenzie was, had never met him, and he was confounded by the request that he assent to any such payment. Neither he nor his lawyers ever received any response. Fr. MacRae had little doubt that the stranger -- like others who had emerged, long after trial, with allegations and attorneys, and, frequently, just-recovered memories of abuse -- got his settlement.
 
By the time he was taken off to prison in 1994, payouts for such claims against priests promised to surpass the rosiest dreams of civil attorneys. The promise was duly realized: In 2003, the Boston Archdiocese paid $85 million for some 54 claimants. The Portland, Ore., Archdiocese, which had already handed over some
$53 million, declared bankruptcy in 2004, when confronted with $155 million in new claims. Those of Tucson and Spokane soon did the same.
 
Fr. MacRae's own Diocese of Manchester had the distinction, in 2002, of being the first to be threatened with criminal charges. According to the New Hampshire Attorney General's office, the state was prepared to seek indictments on charges of child endangerment. To avert prosecution, the diocese signed an agreement
much publicized by the AG's office, acknowledging that it was likely that the state could obtain a conviction. (Attorneys familiar with the issue had their doubts about that.) Meanwhile, claims and payments continued apace. By the end of 2004, the Diocese audit showed a total of $22,210,400 -- thus far -- in settlements.
 
That the scandals which began reaching flood tide in the late '90s had to do with charges all too amply documented, and that involved true predators, no one would dispute. Nor can there be much doubt that those scandals, their non-stop press coverage, and the irresistible pressure on the Church to show proof of cleansing resulted in a system that rewarded false claims along with the true. An expensive arrangement, that -- in more ways than one.
 
No one would be more aware of that than Gordon MacRae, whose infuriated response to the Nixon Peabody attorney included reference to "the settlement game." He didn't trouble to mention the cost the game had exacted in his case. For the last few years, he has shared a seven-and-a-half by 14 foot cell with one other inmate at the New Hampshire State Penitentiary. For this, he is thankful as only a prisoner can be who had had the experience of being housed, his first five years in prison, with eight men in a cell built for four. Every inmate ever placed in such a cell lives in fear of having to return and he is no exception, he notes. Still it had been easier on him than some around him.
 
"I had an interior life -- others had less."
 
At St. Bernard Parish in New Hampshire, the patient, energetic young Fr. MacRae was the one chosen for work with troubled teenagers, invariably assigned to drug addiction centers. Through it all he remained oblivious to snares that might lie in the path of a priest for the young and needy. He was soon to be educated.
 
In the spring of 1983, 14-year-old Lawrence Carnevale cried bitterly upon learning that Fr. Gordon, whom he adored, was to move to another parish, and threw himself onto the priest's lap. He made phone calls to Fr. Gordon at his new parish. Within a few months, the youth told his psychotherapist that Fr. Gordon had kissed him. Three years later -- expelled from his Catholic High School for carrying a weapon -- he told a counselor that the priest had fondled him and run his hands up his leg. At roughly the same time, he accused a male teacher at St. Thomas High School of making advances to him, then made the same allegation against his study hall teacher at Winnacunnet High School. Police Detective Arthur Wardell, who investigated, concluded in his report that this was a young man who basked in the attention such charges brought him, and that there was no basis to them.
 
Lawrence Carnevale nonetheless had more revelations of abuse a decade later. In 1993, he alleged that Fr. MacRae had held a gun on him, and had forced him tomasturbate while licking the barrel. Clearly, his narrative of trauma had undergone extraordinary transformation. Prosecutors and their experts invariably explain such dazzling enrichment in the charges as being the result of an accuser's newfound courage. They would have occasion to make numerous explanations of this kind throughout Fr. MacRae's trial. Though Lawrence Carnevale's own case would not come before a court, his charges would play their role in bolstering a 1994 criminal case brought against the priest. He would have the satisfaction, as well, of hearing the presiding judge cite the torment and lifelong pain Lawrence Carnevale had suffered at the hands of Fr. MacRae.
 
A decade earlier, his stories had also had their effect on Fr. MacRae, who was unnerved by them, depressed by the suspicions they raised. He had no idea of the disturbances yet to come. In 1988, 17-year-old Michael Rossi, a patient at the Spofford Chemical Dependency Hospital, asked to meet with him. Not long into their talk, which was supposed to be about his addiction, the man became agitated, exposed himself, and began telling him about his other sexual encounters at the hospital. Fr. MacRae walked quickly away, his memories of the Carnevale accusations still fresh, and declared he was about to open the door – a threat that chastened the patient enough to zip up. Before walking away, though, he had a final, warning query for the priest: "This was confession, right?"
 
Gordon MacRae now recalls the words with some wryness, though at the time he was far from sanguine. He discussed the incident with his superiors, along with his fears about having to disclose, to police, details of an encounter the Spofford patient had declared a "confession." Msgr. Frank Christian offered reassurances.
Fr. MacRae was suspended nevertheless, pending an investigation. Two months later, state police who conducted an investigation declared the case unfounded and closed it -- which did little to keep the Spofford incident from feeding the suspicions of Detective James McLaughlin, sex crimes investigator for the Keene
police department, then just beginning what was to become a considerable career in his field, particularly for his stings involving child molesters.
 
Other factors, too, had played their role in focusing his attention on the priest, not least a letter sent by a Catholic Youth Services social worker after the Spofford Hospital incident. The letter informed the investigator of authoritative information the worker had received that Fr. MacRae was a suspect in the murder and sex-mutilation of a Florida boy. It was a while before word from Florida police, revealing the story as bogus, caught up with the social workers and police in Keene. Meanwhile, Detective McLaughlin was busy interrogating some 22 teenage boys whom Fr. MacRae knew or had counseled. Despite determined, repeated questioning, he could find no one with any complaints about the priest.
 
He did, however, have teenager Jon Plankey, who claimed that Fr. MacRae had attempted to solicit sex from him. The charges stemmed from a convoluted conversation in which the Plankey boy, saying he would do anything for the money, asked for a loan of $75, which Fr. MacRae declined to give. Jon Plankey had already made a molestation complaint against a Job Corp supervisor, and would go on to charge a church choir director. He also charged a man in Florida with attempted abuse.
 
As the Plankey saga showed, the role played by the prospect of financial settlement from the church tended to announce itself with remarkable speed. Jon Plankey's mother worked for the Keene Police. Even before Fr. MacRae was aware of the accusations, the then-Msgr. (now Auxiliary Bishop) Frank Christian received a call from Mrs. Plankey informing him that she had learned that Fr. MacRae was being investigated on solicitation charges involving her son, and that a settlement would be in order if the diocese were to avoid a lawsuit and lawyers. The Plankeys claims were duly settled out of court (after added claims that the priest had taken pornographic pictures of Jon.)
 
Fr. MacRae, summoned to meet with Detective McLaughlin, was informed that there was much evidence against him -- including the Spofford Hospital incident – that the police had an affidavit for an arrest, and that it would be in everybody's best interest for him to clear everything up and sign a confession. On the police tape, an otherwise bewildered-sounding Fr. MacRae is consistently clear about one thing -- that he in no way solicited the Plankey boy for sex or anything else. "I don't understand," he says more than once, his tone that of a man who feels that there must, indeed, be something for him to understand about the charge and its causes that eludes him. On a leave of absence from his duties at the parish, depressed over the return of undiagnosed seizures in the recent year -- which had not plagued him since early childhood -- he listens as the police assure him that he can save all the bad publicity.
 
"Our concern is, let's get it taken care of, let's not blow it out of proportion . . . . You know what the media does," they warned. He could avoid all the stories, protect the church, let it all go away quietly. At one point Fr. MacRae asked for the recorder to be turned off for a moment, lest his answer to questions about a male parishioner's visit to him embarrass a woman in the community. From here on the interview continued unrecorded. As far as Fr. MacRae could see, the police had knowledge of a terrible wrong he had done the Plankey boy that could endanger him, psychologically, for life. He recalls that when he thought to ask for a lawyer -- a request Detective McLaughlin denies, today, that Fr. MacRae made -- he was told that would only muddy the waters. Here was his opportunity to take care of things, avoid arrest, an eruption of media attention damaging to the church. After four hours of interrogation, Fr. MacRae agreed to sign a statement that he had endangered the welfare of a minor, a misdemeanor. Before affixing his signature, he saw that the detective had added the names of three more boys. Nobody, he was told, is going to believe you solicited just one boy.
 
Shortly after, Sgt. Hal Brown, Detective McLaughlin's partner in the interrogation, alerted reporters to the confession, via a press release, which produced the inevitable storm of media publicity, "Though no sexual acts were committed by MacRae," it noted, "there are often varied levels of victimization." The release went on to commend Officer McLaughlin for his excellent work.
 
---
 
Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal's editorial board.
 
 
The Wall Street Journal
28 April 2005 page A18
 
A Priest's Story -- Part II
 
By Dorothy Rabinowitz
 
About his own moral lapses -- grave violations of his vows -- Gordon MacRae required no clarifications. He was a priest who had failed twice to resist temptation, once, briefly, with a married woman who had declared her love and need for him -- a saga with elements of "The Thorn Birds" and, in larger part, farce. There was a one-night encounter, during his leave of absence from the parish, with Tony Bonacci, a highly intelligent 16-year male friend and a dependent of sorts. Tony had himself initiated the encounter -- never to be repeated, his entreaties notwithstanding -- he told Fr. MacRae's attorney. All irrelevant, Fr. MacRae says, today. "I was the adult."
 
The results were, in any case, disastrous, at least as regards Tony, who made himself a tool of the prosecution in the case against Fr. MacRae, if a highly ambivalent one.
 
Given probation after his signing of a confession, Fr. MacRae took a job at a center for priests in New Mexico, where he received, one day, a strange letter from a Jon Grover, now in his mid-20s -- a member of a family he had known well back in Keene, N.H. The letter-writer referred to many sexual encounters in detail, and observed that "the sex between us was very special to me." The priest wrote back that the writer must be an imposter, since the real Jon Grover would have known that no such thing had taken place.
 
It was the first of several sting attempts by Detective James McLaughlin, whose own reports testify that he wrote the letters himself. Jon's older brother Thomas -- now, like his brother, deep into plans for a civil and criminal case
alleging that the priest had molested him a decade earlier -- took a role in a different sting effort. This was a series of phone calls to the priest, which Detective McLaughlin was supposed to record. It was no small testament to the primary goal of all these efforts that those calls originated -- as the phone records show -- from the office of Thomas Grover's personal injury lawyer. The possibilities of a lawsuit caught the attention of an increasing number of Grovers: 27-year-old David Grover informed police, in 1992, that when he heard a report of financial settlements in the notorious Father Porter case in Massachusetts, he had had to pull his car over and weep, because he had been overcome, suddenly, by his memories of his victimization by Fr. MacRae.
 
* * *
 
In early May 1993, while in New Mexico, Fr. MacRae was arrested on the basis of indictments in New Hampshire. He now faced criminal charges from Lawrence Carnevale, Jon Grover and Tony, who chose to leave the country to avoid testifying. There would be, in the end, just one trial -- on accusations by Thomas Grover that the priest had assaulted him sexually during counseling sessions in a rectory office, and elsewhere.
 
With a lawyer, and minimal funds, Fr. MacRae prepared for the battle, though nothing could have prepared him for the press release issued by his diocese shortly before his trial. Carried all over New England, it declared: "The Church is a victim of the actions of Gordon MacRae just as are these individuals . . ."  Newspapers, carrying the release, edited the words to "alleged actions." This statement by his diocese, effectively declaring him guilty just as he was about to go to trial, shook him to the core. It was explained, to Fr. MacRae's outraged representative, that the release had been "carefully crafted," as Msgr. Frank Christian put it, to address "concerns about Fr. MacRae raised by the media" -- testimony to the terrors of adverse publicity now affecting diocesan
officials and their policies, and not in New Hampshire alone. In his summation at the trial to come, the chief prosecutor did not neglect to remind jurors of the statement by the priest's own diocese.
 
If the events leading to Fr. MacRae's prosecution had all the makings of dark fiction, the trial itself perfectly reflected the realities confronting defendants in cases of this kind. For the complainant in this case, as for many others seeking financial settlements, a criminal trial -- with its discovery requirements, cross examinations, and the possibility, even, of defeat -- was a highly undesirable complication. The therapist preparing Thomas Grover for his civil suit against the diocese sent news, enthusiastically informing him that she'd had word from the police that Gordon MacRae had been offered a plea deal he could not refuse, and that the client could probably rest assured there would be no trial. On the contrary, Fr. MacRae would over the next months refuse two
attractive pretrial plea deals, the second offering a mere one to three years for an admission of guilt.
 
Throughout his testimony, Thomas Grover repeatedly railed at the priest for forcing him to endure the torments of a trial. He would not have much to fear, in the end, in these proceedings, whose presiding judge, the Hon. Arthur D. Brennan, refused to allow into evidence Thomas Grover's long juvenile history of theft, assault, forgery and drug offenses. In New Hampshire, where juries need only find the accuser credible in sex abuse cases, with no proofs required, this was no insignificant restriction. The judge also took it upon himself to instruct jurors to "disregard inconsistencies in Mr. Grover's testimony," and said that they should not think him dishonest because of his failure to answer questions. The jury had much to disregard.
 
The questions he did answer yielded some remarkable testimony related to the central charges -- that in the summer of 1983, at age 15, he had been repeatedly assaulted sexually by the priest, in four successive counseling sessions in the rectory office and another time elsewhere. Confronted with inevitable questions
about why he would come back, after the first terrifying attack on him, for a second, third and fourth session, Mr. Grover told the court that he had an "out-of-body-experience." Also that he had blackouts that caused him to go to each new counseling session with no memory that he had been sodomized and otherwise assaulted the session before. Such attacks during counseling (sessions Fr. MacRae notes he never held) weren't the only traumas inflicted on him. The priest had also chased him with his car.
 
"And he had a gun," accuser had testified in a deposition, "and he was threatening me and telling me over and over that he would hurt me, kill me, if I tried to tell anybody, that no one would believe me. He chased me through the cemetery and tried to corner me." Mr. Grover spoke also of the priest's stash of child pornography, an ever more prominent theme in the prosecution.
 
* * *
 
One of the defendant's early encounters with the Grovers, a family with eight adopted children whom he met in 1979, occurred when he drove past their house and was flagged down. The youngest child, aged five, who had wandered into the pool, lay near death from drowning while his mother and a nurse worked in vain to bring him back. Fr. MacRae rushed in, picked the child up, and got the water out of him so that his lungs functioned.
 
During his testimony, Thomas Grover cited the saving of the child as one of the means the priest had used to insinuate himself into the family so that he could molest him and his brothers. In a time when any gesture of friendship or kindness can be translatable, in a courtroom, into evidence of "grooming" for sexual seduction, priests like the accused were indeed vulnerable. He had no doubt bought too many pizzas, made too many small loans, opened his doors too often, for the age of suspicion.
 
More than halfway through the trial, as Thomas Grover's testimony began to pose ever more serious credibility problems, the prosecutors offered Fr. MacRae still another plea deal -- an extraordinarily lenient one to two years for an admission of guilt. Relieved though his attorneys would have been if he'd taken it, they were unsurprised at his refusal. "I am not," he told one, "going to say I am guilty of crimes I never committed so that the Grovers and other extortionists can walk way with hundreds of thousands of dollars for their lies."
 
The jury that the accused thought must acquit him, came in with a verdict of guilty within 90 minutes. Left entirely without funds and facing the three other trials yet to come, Fr. MacRae agreed to a post-conviction plea deal on all remaining charges -- one to two years to be served concurrently with the sentence yet to be handed down in the Grover case. Scarcely a sentence at all.
 
His defense lawyers, departing for other business, urged him to take the deal, which Fr. MacRae described, then and after, as a negotiated lie.
Among the witnesses testifying at the sentencing hearing was Lawrence Carnevale, whose chronicle of claims of abuse had begun with a kiss. At least two church staff members recall that, back in the 1980s when all this was beginning, the youth told them that he had a hit list and that Fr. MacRae was at the very top -- an announcement that came just after Fr. MacRae stopped accepting the young Carnevale's nonstop collect-calls to his new parish. Also testifying at the sentencing hearing was Mr. Carnevale's psychologist, Allen Stern, who opined that the chief cause of Mr. Carnevale's lifelong psychological problems were "the sexual events that took place with Fr. MacRae." Was his diagnosis Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome? Not quite, the psychologist explained, it was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Delay.
 
At sentencing, Judge Brennan charged that the priest had groomed and exploited vulnerable boys. He had assaulted Lawrence Carnevale, said the judge. "You destroyed Mr. Carnevale's dream of becoming a priest." The judge had harsh words too, for Fr. David Diebold, the only priest to come forward to speak in defense of Fr. MacRae. Above all he was incensed at Gordon MacRae's lack of remorse, "your aggressive denials of wrongdoing." "The evidence of your possession of child pornography," the judge declared, "is clear and convincing."
 
Detective McLaughlin says, today, "There was never any evidence of child pornography."
 
* * *
 
Having given his reasons, the judge then sentenced the priest, now 42, to consecutive terms on the charges, a sentence of 33-and-a-half to 67 years.  Since no parole is given to offenders who do not confess, it would be in effect a life term.
 
The priest, who spends his days working in the library, and provides advice, when asked, on everything from marital to immigration problems, now faces discipline of sorts, for that refusal to say he is guilty. It has put him in the category considered "program failures," with the result, he has been told, that he will be moved from the quarters now considered privileged to a prison in Berlin, N.H.
 
In the years since his conviction, nearly all accusers who had a part in conviction -- along with some who did not -- received settlements. Jay, the second of the Grover sons -- who had, Detective McLaughlin's notes show, repeatedly insisted that the priest had done nothing amiss -- came forward with his claim for settlement in the late '90s. And in 2004, the subject in the Spofford Hospital incident, Michael Rossi -- "This is confession, right?" – came forward with his claim.
 
"There will be others," predicts Fr. MacRae, whose second appeal of the conviction lies somewhere in the future. 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.
 
 
Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal's editorial board. This concludes a two-part essay.

 
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