A Priest's Story Part 1

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 27, 2005

Not all accounts of sex abuse in the Catholic Church turn out to be true.

A Priest’s Story
By DOROTHY RABINOWITZ
April 27, 2005; Page A14
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. law film 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 to masturbate 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.)

r. 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. This is the first of two parts, the second of which appears here.

Comments

  1. Terri says:

    This is indeed a sad story, and I feel bad for Fr. MacRae. But I can’t help thinking that if the Church had been more proactive with actual offenders, there wouldn’t have been as much attention about it now, and there wouldn’t be so many people jumping on the settlement bandwagon. I am not ashamed to be a Catholic, but I am more than ashamed of the Church officials that covered up these horrendous crimes.

  2. gospa says:

    I know a very holy priest who was falsely accused also, by a young man who attended his parish and was a drug addict. He tried to help this young man, which was attested to by other youngsters in the parish who knew him and the drug addict was rebellious and didn’t want to change. A number of years later he died of Aids and his family brought a law suit against the innocent priest. The priest was advised by his archbishop to retire, as he was old enough to do so. When people lie about situations like this, that is pure evil. The priest is God’s representative to us Catholics and they will have to eventually answer to God for what they have done.

  3. Dear Fr MacRae please don’t give up, St Pio will help you through Our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered just as you are. He knows your pain and also the love you have for him.

    God Bless you and I will keep you in my daily prayers.

  4. Carol in Ohio says:

    I have heard many years ago that the Catholic church is one of the richest organizations in the world. Also I have heard about
    the priest scandals for years. But this I haven’t heard until now, about the pay-offs to shut peoples mouths. It is heart breaking, -
    that some of our clergy did fall into sin, however the WORST sin is to COVER IT UP WITH MONEY PAY-OFFS. This reminds me of our POLITICAL SYSTEM today – MONEY TALKS. This is how Obama got elected president, WEALTHY COMPANIES, UNIONS, etc. put him in office. It is a disgrace that the Catholic church will stoop to any level to keep things quiet. No wonder there are so many people making FALSE ACQUISATIONS against priests. They know from past years – how the church will pay them off – even though the accusers are LIEING. Instead of trying to protect our priest and prove their innocense – they pay off the accusers. This is AWFUL!! PROTECT YOUR PRIEST!!

    After reading about Fr. MacRae, which I believe he is INNOCENT – it makes me ashamed to say I am a Catholic – knowing that millions of dollars are spent on pay-offs. Maybe other religious organizations are also doing likewise – who knows.
    Remember this – TWO WRONGS DON’T MAKE IT RIGHT!!

    I will keep Fr. MacRae and Fr. Corapi in my prayers daily.

  5. sheila ryan says:

    Father, do you have access to some of these documents that are with out a doubt evidence of extortion and other lies? I think about this so much that it reminds me of the OJ Simson trial in Reverse. I Was so interesed in it and sick at the time, I watched almost all of it. The reason he was judged not guilty was that three Detectives lied on the stand. The worst lies were about the blood evidence. They said they took it right to the crime lab. As an old RN who did home visits and drew a lot of blood in five years, I had a special box with dry ice in it to prevent blood degradation. The blood they obtained was so degraded that the Lab Rep stated that it could not be used as evidence. Of course they got a private lab
    To say it was a good. I was appalled at that.

    Were the liars prosrcuted for perjury? Of course not. What made me think of this is when Father, deprived of sleep signed an incriminating document and then the cops added to it

    I learned long ago that you don’t have to get into a garbage can to smell garbage. Father Gordon was surrounded by garbage!!!

    Father, at a distance, we surround you with so much love.

  6. sheila ryan says:

    This is not written in an orderly fashion, but every time that I read this, I seem to find more dirt thrown at Father Gordon and it is horrific!

    I’ve probably have learned how the organized mob works….extortion! Only difference is that Father isn’t a store owner, or a construction company. A letter asking for a settlement or go to court is extortion. A word like settlement sounds so much better than extortion. The Mother that flat out asked for money is a bit greedy to say the least.

  7. Sr. Margaret says:

    Dear Fr. M.
    I spent 20 years in Carmel and since the one in Brooklyn closed, I have spent years trying to get back in a good traditional Carmel. How gladly would I trade places with you to restore you to your fruitful ministry.

    The spiritual father of St. Teresa was Fr. Gracian. (Not St. John of the Cross, as people assume). He was falsely accused by a female penitent and thrown out of the Order, then spent years as a slave of the “Moors”. Although his name was largely exonerated , he was never received back by the Discalced Fathers of his day. He should have been canonized for his holiness of life, but to this day, the Discalced hardly acknowledge his existence. I will keep you daily in my prayers. God alone suffices. Sr. M

  8. Ann G. says:

    Amazingly, Det. McLaughlin claims to have authored the following article: “Characteristics of a Fictitious Child Victim: Turning a Sex Offenders Dreams into his Worst Nightmare”. International Journal of Communications Law & Policy/Yale Journal of Law & Technology/Autumn 2004.
    (Source: http://www.ottawacountysheriff.org/documents/mclaughlin.pdf)

  9. Unfortunately, Fr. MacRae appeared to have fallen to police pressure and sadly common tactics of deception designed to get a “confession” and “save the courts time.”

    1) Denied a lawyer
    2) Pressured to avoid embarrassment, to “keep things quiet” and “you know how the media is” and the BIG lie, “let it all go away quietly.”
    3) Told that there was “…much evidence against him.” This is a common line used in such interrogations, frequently completely unfounded.
    4) Extra names, not previously mentioned, added to the alleged confession before signing it–a tactic used NOT to “help others believe” but to close more cases for the officer perpetrating such a fiction.

    I point out that most police are hard working, generally honest people who put themselves in harm’s way for our protection. Those who use dishonest tactics in attempt to close a case at anyone’s cost are thankfully a small minority (though even one is too many), and I hope that one will not judge the honest ones by the few rotten apples that do exist.

  10. Tom says:

    I went to a boys Catholic high school in the 70′s during a time in which, I believe, there was indeed one particular priest who may have abused some of the other boys (he went to jail, and died in there, too). I can’t speak to this innocence or guilt. I really don’t know for sure. But what I did note was that during the big-settlement era of the 90′s and early 2000′s, several other priests in my same school were suddenly being named as abusers along with the priest who had been found guilty, and accused by boys I had known well in school who never mentioned a thing about such to me, nor indicated in any way that such a thing was happening And let me tell you, boys talk! I felt strongly that these accusations were false (although how could prove that?) as I read them in the newspaper 20 years later, because some of these priests were extremely kind and big-hearted to me personally, and never ever done anything to me that I could remotely call into question. But yet, the settlements seem to spew forth from the Diocese. One of the boys I knew (I read in the newspaper account) gained $800k, and I always doubted his story. Yet, again, I don’t know.
    The bottom line is: I, like a lot of Catholics, feel our church and our priests have been victimized, and our Dioceses just seems to hand over the good names of our priests and load of cash without any sort of fight.
    Fr. MacRae, God bless you as you bear this unjust burden without support.

  11. Kim says:

    When someone is innocent of the lies said against him. The truth will someday come out. Their is justice in heaven and God see all things! It is only a matter of time before one is brought before God and he will Judge the accused rightly!!! and the innocent will be freed. I pray for you Father let their be JUSTICE. Trust God.

  12. This is an incredible story. I can’t imagine the plight of priests who are falsely accused. It never occured to me that people would greedily concoct falsehoods to get the Church’s money when these scandals stared surfacing. I pray justice will be done.

    Father, you must be doing penance for so many souls!

  13. Mrs. McD says:

    I hope and pray that these young men recant their stories. It is a shame that the Constitution fails to protect our priests who are accused and automatically considered guilty, and that the weight of the proof of innocence falls on them and their diocese.

    With this in mind then, anyone could say anything about anyone and get away with such slander, and ultimately reap monetary gain from their lies. What has happened to our country? Satan has his grip tight around the throats of our beloved, innocent priests and is enjoying their torment. God help us if we cannot put an end to this. We have already lost so many good priests to such slander.

  14. Joan Doll says:

    I have often thought about the plight of a priest who is accused of sexual abuse, but who is innocent. How does one fight it?

    There is no defense, because the accuser can lie about an incident which occurred in private. Why do they most times wrongly believe the accuser?

    I do believe it is just another assault on the Catholic Church and Christianity. Are there never any rabbis or imams accused of such indiscretions? Are there no character witnesses to stand up for the accused? Or, do the authorities just want to rule against the accused priest?

    I will pray for Father MacRae, because I somehow or other believe that he is innocent of the crime for which he is incarcerated.

    I hope the accuser will recant someday — soon.

    God bless Fr MacRae

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