A trying year behind These Stone Walls demonstrated what St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20)
- “Midway upon my life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was? I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives shape to fear. Death could scarce be more bitter than that place! But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed thereby God’s grace.” (Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Il Inferno, Canto I, 1307)
When I first chanced upon the opening verses of The Inferno, Book One of the 14th Century masterpiece, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, I thought it captured perfectly my experience of prison. The past year especially has been a series of trials, tribulations, and even a triumph or two behind these walls.
As 2019 progressed I wrote to you about some of the tribulations, but I did not write to you about all of them. Most of what goes on in an American prison defies written words. Over the course of the last ten years, I have been approached by many prisoners who say, “I hope you will write about this,” but many more who eclipsed that with “I hope you know you can’t write about this!”
For any middle-aged man or woman in America, going to prison seems the most catastrophic event imaginable. But going to prison for crimes that never actually took place sends the sense of personal disaster into an atmospheric tumult. Bitterness, anger, anxiety seem inevitable, followed by deep discouragement as judges – former prosecutors all – dismiss one failed appeal after another. As Dante’s opening Canto of The Inferno observes, “I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness” as the American criminal justice system.
While first sitting down to type this post, I glanced up at my small television that I bought from the prison commissary. I saw that the 1993 film, The Fugitive was just starting on American Movie Classics (AMC). I sat through the film again before typing a single word. For reasons I cannot fully fathom, I have found The Fugitive to be mesmerizing each of the at least five times
I have watched it.
Inspired by a 1960s television series of the same name, The Fugitive was released in 1993 just as I was preparing for trial. It recounts the story of Dr. Richard Kimble (portrayed by the great Harrison Ford), a cardiovascular surgeon wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the murder of his wife. Kimble escapes from a prison-bound bus and sets out to find the real murderer known only to him as “the one-armed man.”
Actor Tommy Lee Jones, earned an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for his role as Deputy U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard who leads the manhunt for Kimble. The fascination of the film is really with Deputy Sam Gerard. In dogged pursuit of The Fugitive the Deputy comes to suspect his wrongful conviction and takes on the task of both capturing him and uncovering the truth.
Happy endings are rare for the wrongly imprisoned. The past year, as you know, saw my twenty-fifth year come and go without one. But if you have been reading These Stone Walls this past year, you should be left with no doubt that even in wrongful imprisonment the Great Tapestry of God’s Providence could move me, as it did Dante, to “recount all that I found revealed here by God’s grace.” That grace was most evident this year in a powerful post that opened eyes to the subtlety of some miracles: “Saint Maximilian Kolbe Led Us into the Heart of Mary.”
A HEART TO HEART ENCOUNTER
So as 2020 begins, and with it my 26th year in Dante’s Purgatorio, I have some examples of grace in even the darkest times if you will join me. For this year in review, I selected just a few posts that I think were the year’s most important. Some of them are your selections as well because they were also the most read.
Back in June upon my 37th anniversary of priesthood ordination, I wrote a post entitled, “The Heart of a Priest in Hindsight.” It was in part about Saint John Vianney, a Patron Saint of Priests. It was TSW’s most-read post of the year. In support of the priesthood in 2019, the Knights of Columbus sponsored a schedule of visitations placing the enshrined heart of the great Cure’ d’Ars for veneration in parishes across the U.S.
Even from prison, I kept running into him. A reader in Maine photographed the enshrined heart for a graphic atop my post. Then, as Pornchai Moontri and I watched, we were blessed by the sacred relic as we joined millions at Divine Mercy Sunday Mass at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy televised by EWTN.
If you missed that post, I hope you will read it. One of the bright spots of the year for These Stone Walls happened because of it. Esther, a new TSW reader from New York, volunteered to create a special Facebook Page for These Stone Walls featuring a daily original graphic design based on past posts. The graphics are beautiful, inspired and inspiring.
The page, launched on August 14, the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, was dedicated in his honor. Each day since then, Esther has sent her daily graphic design to my GTL tablet. Talk about pressure! I have to write something each week that is worthy of these wonderful works of art. That, my friends, is a challenge.
Esther’s effort has brought a new audience of readers to this site and has generated interest in some of my older posts lest they pass into internet oblivion. You will find the heart of this priest in the moving designs created by Esther in honor of these humble words. If you have not done so already, Please Like and Follow These Stone Walls on Facebook</a>.
A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE BEFORE STONING YOUR PRIEST
As 2019 progressed, priesthood was the central topic in 22 posts on These Stone Walls culminating in “The Feast of Corpus Christi and the Order of Melchizedek.” After it was posted, I received a note from a reader in the U.K. who took his family to a display of stained glass at a famed chapel. He wrote, “I found myself a sudden and erudite expert on the Biblical Melchizedek!”’
For an oft-cited notion of our bishops – Pro Bono Ecclesiae (“For the Good of the Church”) to be legitimate, Catholics must reflect deeply and solemnly on the priesthood in this new year. Many proposed “fixes” amount to unjust knee-jerk reactions that will quickly become part of the problem and not part of the solution to our problems. Much of the 2020 agenda for a group called the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests looks alarmingly like the agenda for the U.S. Episcopal church two decades ago.
The diminishment of the priesthood, and of a Catholic voice in the public square, is not the result of the sexual abuse narrative, but rather a symptom that has run parallel to it. Many on the left – (I take that back. There is no longer a “left” in politics and religion. There is now only a “far left.”) – Many on the far left want to rid the Church of clericalism by ridding the Church of the priesthood.
Priesthood is being reduced from a vocation to a mere “job” from which Priests are becoming as disposable as fast-food vendors. Our bishops have provided much of the impetus for this. Look no further than Ryan MacDonald’s 2019 TSW eye-opener, “Our Bishops Have Inflicted Grave Harm on the Priesthood.”
A cautionary tale has just emerged from the Episcopal church, especially here in New Hampshire. The admission of women to Holy Orders in the 1970s caused substantial division to the Episcopal church with reverberations in the Worldwide Anglican Communion. In 2003, as the Roman Catholic Church was confronting a largely homosexual abuse scandal, the New Hampshire Episcopal church chose as its bishop an openly homosexual divorced man living in a same-sex relationship.
In the years to follow, the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson entered into drug rehab, married his same-sex partner in a highly touted public statement, divorced a year or two later, and then retired having torn the Anglican Communion asunder. Seventeen years later on December 13, 2019, the Episcopal diocese issued the following press release:
. “The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire is launching a new training program to make becoming a priest easier. The diocese in New Hampshire will offer a certificate program that requires students to attend nine in-person weekend trainings. In addition to the training sessions, students will complete an on-line curriculum provided by the Iona Center… ‘This really makes it easier for [priesthood candidates] to answer that call.’” (“Church creates priest certification program,” Concord Monitor, Dec. 13, 2019).
Priesthood ordination in the Catholic Church requires an undergraduate degree followed by four years of major seminary formation leading to a Master of Divinity or an equivalent advanced degree in theological and ministerial studies. The Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire is reducing its requirement for priesthood to nine weekend seminars.
If such a reduction of priesthood requirements spreads to the Roman Rite, priesthood will fade entirely from view, and with it, the Eucharist. Be careful what you wish for. As Catholics,
we need to pay attention to something I wrote about in this past year. You will find a counterpoint to the usual media coverage in “A Little Perspective Before Stoning Your Priest.”
CARDINAL GEORGE PELL IN PRISON
The most painful event of 2019 for me was not what has happened to me, but what has happened to Cardinal George Pell. The deprivation of my freedom was an attack on justice, but the case against Cardinal Pell was an attack on the entire Catholic Church. Nothing else can explain the fact that he remains in prison after being convicted in an “historic” abuse case with zero evidence to support it.
When my own case saw its first state court appeal in 1996, the argument for reversing the conviction was a solid one. Accuser Thomas Grover testified that he had been in six drug treatment centers in New Hampshire, including Beech Hill Hospital. The State’s psychological expert witness, Leonard Fleischer, Ed.D., testified without proof or evidence that “In my experience, 70 to 80 percent of the patients at Beech Hill Hospital had been sexually abused.” Ryan MacDonald wrote of this at LinkedIn Pulse: “Psychotherapists Sent an Innocent Catholic Priest to Prison.”
Several of the jurors at my trial later reported that they were swayed entirely by this testimony which actually had nothing to do with the case against me. The state appellate court ruled that such uncorroborated statistical testimony should have been barred and the prosecutors actually conceded to that. However the appellate judges added that allowing it was “harmless error.” Harmless, that is, to everyone but the defendant.
In the case of Cardinal George Pell, the entire story from start to finish was so implausible that, absent compelling evidence, common sense should have prevailed in his trial. In the end, there was no compelling evidence, but there was no common sense either. Cardinal Pell was not on trial for specific acts. He was on trial for the entire Catholic sexual abuse story and that was an abomination against justice.
Only one of the three Australian appeals court judges seemed free enough from the politics involved to write with clarity that the Pell case was unjust and unlawful. The other two appeal judges just went along with using the Catholic abuse narrative itself as adequate evidence against Pell who was tried in the press long before he was tried in a courtroom.
In the end, even the Catholic press failed to see and report on this injustice, apparently over-sold on new hashtag standards of justice such as #BelieveSurvivors. I wrote a letter in protest to the editor of one prominent American Catholic newspaper that reported on Cardinal Pell’s failed appeal without mentioning that one of the three justices hearing the appeal penned a vehement and compelling 23-page dissent. The Catholic newspaper did not print my objection.
But I have even deeper issues with the case against Cardinal Pell. There is still the unanswered and nagging question about the role played by his position as the appointed reformer of Vatican financial affairs and the Vatican Bank. I am no conspiracy theorist, but his charges were preceded by the fact that some powerful figures wanted the Cardinal and his oversight and reforms out of the way.
The most important of several posts I have written about this story is one that screams out for justice and awareness in the court of public opinion. The glaring evidence for something very wrong in the Pell case could not be clearer than it is in “Cardinal Pell, Pornchai Moontri, and the Scales of (In)Justice.”
Perhaps the most important development in my own quest for justice in the past year was the discovery of a 2-part video documentary interview with me. It was the testimony that no New Hampshire judge would allow to be previously heard. The video interview took place in 2011, and then passed through a series of hands before becoming lost for the next eight years.
In 2019, a flash drive containing the unedited video was sent to Kentucky Attorney Franklyn Friday after he wrote an article in the American Thinker – “Priests, Good and Bad” – that referenced my story. Mr. Friday found the video to be most compelling, and sought my approval to publish it.
If you have not viewed both parts of the video, I hope you will. Several TSW readers reported that they found the video to be fascinating and watched both parts in one sitting. However you decide to view it, the entire interview can be found below.
We face some changes and challenges in the year to come. I presented some of these as Ordinary Time came to a close with “Crime and Punishment on the Solemnity of Christ the King.”
Thank you for facing them with us, and for your words of encouragement and gifts of support.
May the Lord bless you and keep you in this New Year of hope.
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Editor’s Note: Please share this post and Subscribe to These Stone Walls. Start the New Year with a more complete view of the story of priests falsely accused by meeting Father Gordon MacRae in this Video Interview with Father Kenneth Gumbert at the New Hampshire State Prison: