Michael Gallagher, a U.S. Army veteran and dedicated teacher, recounts the most harrowing battlefield of his life, but it was not in Korea. It was in Pennsylvania.
Introduction by Father Gordon MacRae
Michael and Betty Gallagher are longtime readers of These Stone Walls from Abington, Pennsylvania, where they are active members of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Mike and Betty are sometimes quick to praise me for my “faith and endurance” but after hearing Mike’s story, I bow to them for theirs.
Michael, now 82 years of age, served in the United States Army in Korea for two years. After active duty, he and Betty raised their three sons while Mike worked full time for Sears. While working and raising a young family, Mike attended night school at LaSalle College and Temple University from where he earned academic degrees and teaching certificates.
Mike had a distinguished career as an inner city elementary school teacher in Philadelphia for six years followed by 26 years teaching in the Abington, PA School District. Then, one day, the police showed up at his home, an event that set in motion the title Michael Gallagher gives to this haunting and riveting post. I will never forget this harrowing account that feels so painfully familiar to me.
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A TEACHER’S WORST NIGHTMARE by Michael Gallagher
“I look upon those squirrels as they scurry up our tree.
If only I were them, how free that I would be.
And now they go without me, the birds upon their wing.
If only would my mind be silent; the peace that it would bring.”
Saturday used to be the best day of the week. I would take a short walk around my neighborhood on Saturday mornings and pass the Abington Township building where the jail is housed. I recall thinking, “I wonder where the jail is in that place; it would be interesting to see it.” There is an old saying that I also recall: “Don’t wish for something. You might get it.” On January 22, 1998, that wish came true, but not the way I wanted.
A little over month earlier, on December 12, two detectives from the Abington Township Police Department came to my door and asked if I was Michael Gallagher. They stated that a complaint had been filed against me and I would have to come with them to the station to learn about it. I asked if I needed an attorney, but they lied and said, “No.” I trusted that answer, and with that mistake my life changed forever.
My wife, Betty, and I went with the detectives. I was told, once there, that a student I had taught twelve years earlier in my fifth grade class had accused me of molesting her numerous times in 1986. Who, I wanted to know, would make such a ludicrous accusation? When I was told the name of this young lady, I could hardly even remember her. All I could recall was that she had been a quiet young student.
In my 32 years as a teacher, 26 of them in the Abington Township, Pennsylvania School District, no one had ever before even hinted of anything improper. Now this former student had accused me of raping her at least twenty times a dozen years earlier. Some were claimed to have taken place in my car, some in an unidentified apartment she said I owned in our county. But most of the claims were in my classroom, a classroom of mostly all windows that looked out onto the school playground and the inside corridor.
Trying to prove my innocence, I answered all of their questions honestly and to the best of my ability. This was, after all, twelve years ago! My wife and I even allowed the detectives to search our home, a process that took two hours wherein they found nothing even related to these charges.
I later learned that they were really looking for pedophilia related evidence. Having found nothing, these same detectives, along with the prosecutor, would make up a story that I probably had a storage locker somewhere with pictures of my accuser and other child pornography. Of course, they never even attempted to investigate this to corroborate or refute the untrue presumption.
Finally, they asked if I would be willing to undergo a polygraph examination. I readily agreed which was another mistake. The operator was just another detective from the police station who kept telling me that if I would confess to these crimes, “we can stop this procedure right now!” All that polygraph operator was doing was using the device to further question and entrap me.
I had spent an entire day with the police, cooperating with them, professing and even proving my innocence, all without an attorney. I trusted when I should not have trusted. I spoke when I should not have spoken. The polygraph operator lied, telling the District Attorney that I failed the polygraph test. My own attorney, retained later, learned that I had passed conclusively.
UNDER THE HARSH GLARE OF JUDGMENT
One month later, the police were at my door again, this time to arrest me. I was placed in handcuffs, led from my home in humiliation, placed into a cell for three hours, and then was taken to the district court where I was paraded before news cameras from the five Philadelphia TV stations. The press were also alerted to be present to witness my public condemnation.
Only my wife and one of my Sons were there in court to lend some support. A teachers’ union lawyer had vanished leaving me to face the judge and prosecutor alone. The judge set a preliminary hearing date and then released me, but first I had to post our home as bail. That very evening, on the local television news, I learned that the Abington Township School District had suspended me without pay after 26 years in my teaching position.
The next day I received a certified letter informing me of the suspension. In my early sixties and nearing retirement age, I wondered how my family could survive without income. I still had one son in high school, one in college, and one married living 100 miles away. It was torturous to think of how all this affected my family.
I finally hired a new attorney. He had been an assistant district attorney in the county, and he “knew the ropes.” He also had a daughter whom I had taught in a previous school. He knew me and he knew the system. I sensed that he had confidence in his ability to represent me.
A week later, all the same media people were present to cover my preliminary hearing, but at least this time I had competent legal counsel before facing my accuser in court. She told a surreal and astonishing account of how I molested her… in my car, in some unidentified apartment, and in my glass-enclosed classroom.
Here I was, a teacher with an outstanding record of over thirty years, a devout and faithful Catholic and family man with a wonderful wife with whom I had raised three great sons. Did they just not bother to investigate my character? Sadly, they did not, so anxious were they for a conviction. The police hoped that my picture being shown all over the media would do their work for them by generating other accusers. As time went by, no one else accused me.
But that did not stop this runaway train. Unbelievably, the judge bound me over for trial even after my attorney cross-examined the accuser in the preliminary hearing. He found that she was not able to produce a single witness or a shred of corroborating evidence to support her claims.
This is when I learned that in cases like mine – and like that of Father Gordon MacRae whose trial preceded my ordeal by four years – the accusation itself is all the evidence that is needed to convict the accused. In the words of a prosecutor, “The only people who know the truth are the accused and “the victim.” “If you believe the victim, that is enough to convict!” From day one, my accuser was called “the victim.”
IN THE EYE OF THE STORM, SOME GOOD SAMARITANS
After that preliminary hearing, nothing really happened. Winter turned into spring and then summer with all this all looming over our heads. I spent each day alone with my wife, knowing that the road ahead was fraught with danger. On one bright June day, a certified letter arrived announcing a Summary Judgment from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The letter announced proceedings underway to revoke my teacher certification. It said that an indictment or an arrest was as good as a conviction. I had not even had a trial and this bureaucracy had already judged me guilty. I had worked so long and so hard, going to night school while teaching, to earn this precious certificate.
That same month was time for my annual retreat. When the notice came I told my wife I did not want to go because I was so depressed. She urged me to attend, and reluctantly I agreed. During that retreat, as I came out of my assigned time for Eucharistic Adoration, I felt the urge to write down a message I thought the Lord was telling me.
It was wonderful news, and when I arrived home the next day, I shared that message with my wife. We both had strong faith, and were elated by the hope the message brought. I filed that message away since nothing was happening. Eventually, we both forgot about that message.
The strange thing was, though, that as I continued down that road I could “feel” the prayers of all those relatives, friends, and fellow teachers who said they would support me. Never since then have I had such a feeling, but it sustained me. It was palpable and all-encompassing as I lived in that horrible web of deceit and false accusation fully knowing what was ahead for me.
Each and every day during those ten months before trial, there were phone calls, from friends, relatives and fellow teachers. My local teacher’s union president collected money from our Abington teachers and state and national teacher conventions where she spoke about false accusations. There was also financial support from my three sisters and their families.
A man who helped me in the classroom as a volunteer aid gave me $10,000. When I went to write him an IOU, he said, “Mike, this is not a loan.” To this day, I am deeply grateful for what Mr. Rubinsohn and his wife did for us.
At the same time, my church and pastor were deeply disappointing. My pastor promised to support me when he first heard of my arrest, but when my attorney asked him to be a character witness for us, he unbelievably demurred without explanation.
He knew me well as I was not only a faithful usher at Sunday Masses, but also a daily communicant and a religious education teacher for our parish. Why he lied about supporting me, I will never know. As in the case of Father Gordon MacRae, my church just let me hang.
AFTER THE STORM, HEALING FROM THE WRECKAGE
As my trial loomed over those ten months, I reached my lowest ebb by October, 1998. On the 21st of that month, my attorney, Robert Adshead, showed up at my house unannounced. He told me to get my calendar. I thought we were going to write down court dates for the trial. He just quietly told me to write down a date for my victory party. All charges had been withdrawn. I could not believe what I was hearing. After ten long, stress-filled months, it was over!
My attorney had successfully convinced the District Attorney of his doubts about this case. Every time he saw her in the Montgomery County Courthouse, he would remind her of those doubts and the “bombshell evidence” he had amassed. The D.A. became concerned so she called for a polygraph examination of my accuser. She was brought up from her college campus in Massachusetts and a polygraph test was administered.
She failed it so badly that, as one police detective described it, “It almost blew the machine apart!” Once the case fell so totally apart, the District Attorney held a press conference. I was once again the subject of media coverage among the local papers and news stations of the Delaware County area. Only this time the subject was my exoneration. In December of that year, Dateline NBC broadcast this story on their nightly show.
The Abington School District restored my lost pay for the ten months of my suspension. They invited me to have my teaching credentials restored as well, but I did not accept. I accepted retirement instead. I loved teaching, but my teaching career was ruined. It was ruined not only by an unbalanced accuser, but by police and prosecutors who rushed to judgment with no interest in a fair investigation. This seems so typical of today’s criminal justice system.
Remember the polygraph test I took? The detective administering it told me and the D.A. that I had failed it. My attorney discovered that I had in fact passed it conclusively, but after my exoneration the polygraph results mysteriously disappeared from the file.
The Abington Township Police Chief urged the District Attorney to have my false accuser, Margaret Powell, arrested and charged. The D.A. reluctantly assigned an assistant to prepare me for a grand jury investigation. Then the Assistant District Attorney assigned to secure my testimony “called in sick” that day, and I was on my own. I believe she was told not to attend. The fix was in! The presiding D.A. attacked me, undermined my testimony, and blocked the truth from being told.
Besides having to put up our home as security for bail, my legal expenses in this matter amounted to $45,000. I was urged to file a lawsuit against Margaret Powell, but that would have cost an additional $30,000. She ended up facing no consequences at all for her false witness. I never learned what motivated her to concoct these untrue claims.
In November of 1998, a State Legislator from the 153rd District in Pennsylvania introduced House Bill 106 that would make false accusations of serious crimes a felony offense. The legislator tried to get this bill before the General Assembly but was unsuccessful. I testified that this bill would especially protect teachers and others who are vulnerable to false claims.
Among the state representatives present in hearing about the bill was Josh Shapiro who went on to become Pennsylvania Attorney General. After my testimony about my own ordeal, Mr. Shapiro said to me, “No teacher ever better touch my kids!” That was his answer! [Editor: See “Josh Shapiro and Joseph Goebbels in ‘The Reckoning’” linked again at the end of this post.]
When he was up for reelection, Mr. Shapiro told my wife that he would support a bill by Rep. Tom Murt about false accusations. Mr. Murt also wanted a bill to extend statutes of limitations so that Catholic priests and the Church can be sued, but wanted this limited only to claims involving priests. Needless to say, this story left me cynical about the American justice system.
There is one source of light left unfinished in this story, however. It was the message I wrote after Eucharistic Adoration in the heat of this spiritual battle leading up to trial. I had set it aside, coming back to it only after the case was dropped. Here is what the Lord had said to me:
- “Soon you will be vindicated. There will be no trial. You are not to ask how this will happen but soon it will happen in a most unexpected way. You will not be able to guess how this will happen, no matter how hard you try. And when it happens, you must keep humble and do what you can to help others.”
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A Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Mike kept his word to the Lord. Since shortly after These Stone Walls began in 2009, Mike and Betty Gallagher have generously supported my cause for justice with their gifts and prayers. Take my word for it, please, that anyone who has lived such a nightmare instinctively knows the truth of what Mike has written. I thank him for his candor and courage, for keeping his faith alive throughout it all, and for his healthy cynicism without becoming bitter.
Please share this important post. You may also like these related posts about the state of justice in Pennsylvania from These Stone Walls:
- The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy on the Cover of Newsweek
- Trophy Justice: The Philadelphia Msgr. William Lynn Case
- Will Father Charles Engelhardt’s Prosecutor Take a Plea Deal? (Hint: He did!)
- Attorney General Josh Shapiro & Joseph Goebbels in The Reckoning