The lure of money, a zealous detective, proffered bribes, ineffective lawyers, witness tampering, and many unanswered questions cloud justice for Fr Gordon MacRae
Editor’s Note: The following is the fourth in a series by Ryan A. MacDonald. Other titles in this series include “The Trial of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Fraud,” “The Prison of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Silence,” and “The Post-Trial Extortion of Father Gordon MacRae.”
At the outset, be forewarned. This story is a bit shocking. It’s also a bit lengthy, and there’s no short version. So bear with me please, and read this in more than one sitting if you wish. On the day this article is published, a Catholic Priest in America will awaken in a prison cell at age 61 to begin his twenty-first year of wrongful incarceration for crimes alleged to have occurred when he was 29 or 30 years old.
Every time I write about this story, my Inbox fills with messages from readers stunned and appalled by the facts of the 1994 trial of Fr Gordon MacRae. A minority pose questions such as “How do you know he is innocent?” to which I usually reply, “What makes you think he may not be?” Then the tirades begin, but they never answer my question.
Those who labor to suppress this case of false accusation preface their answers with statements like, “Priests did terrible things and bishops covered it up!” “We all know these priests are guilty,” and “The Catholic Church is a child raping institution!” (from a SNAP member). The prevailing logic here is that Father MacRae went to prison in 1994 for the sins of the Church, the sins of the bishops, and the sins of the priesthood. For many silent Catholics who just want to move on from The Scandal, that is okay. It is not okay.
Then there are those who trumpet the fact that after Fr MacRae’s trial he pled guilty to other things. It’s a favorite chant of the prosecutorial voices in all this which, sadly, include some officials of MacRae’s diocese. But it’s true only if one is jaded enough to view the truth in its narrowest sense, separated from its factual history. It’s not the whole truth. I explored that phenomenon in depth in “The Post Trial Extortion of Fr Gordon MacRae,” a previous chapter in this series.
In the trial of Father MacRae, the sole evidence was the word of Thomas Grover, a 27-year-old, 220-pound man with a criminal rap sheet for assault, theft, forgery, and narcotics charges – all kept from the jury by Judge Arthur Brennan. Grover had a long history of drug abuse, and gained nearly $200,000 for “telling a lie and sticking to it,” as his ex-wife describes his testimony. His ex-wife also says, today, that he punched her and broke her nose before the trial.
And yet throughout this case, with all these factors in plain sight of everyone but the jury, not one person questioned whether this man might be lying for money. Not the zealous detective who today reportedly responded to the question of injustice with one of his own: “Why didn’t MacRae just take the plea deal?” Not the two prosecutors, one of whom was fired after this trial while the other later committed suicide. Not Judge Arthur Brennan who sent this priest to prison for decades while citing evidence that no one has ever seen, evidence that never existed.
Nor was the possibility of lying for money ever openly considered by anyone in the Diocese of Manchester when they wrote six-figure checks to pay Grover and his brothers off. By the time it was all over, Thomas Grover, Jonathan Grover, David Grover and Jay Grover – all “remembering” their claims in the same week over a decade later – emerged from the case with combined settlements of over $650,000. MacRae took, and passed, two pre-trial polygraph (lie detector) tests in this case. Thomas Grover and his brothers never assented to take a polygraph.
In his recent, powerfully written guest article in these pages, President Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights charged that Fr. MacRae, “has been treated unjustly by the authorities, both ecclesiastical and civil.” Bill Donohue is not the first Church figure of note to suggest this. The late writer and editor, Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote that this case “reflects a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice.” The late Cardinal Avery Dulles expressed a similar analysis of the case, as did former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon.
I do not imagine any of them would blithely suggest that some Church officials – by commission or, more likely, omission – abetted a process in which a priest was wrongly imprisoned less than twenty miles from the Chancery Office of his diocese while denied proper legal assistance for two decades.
The truth is worse than you know. During this same two decades, Fr. MacRae has been forced to divide his less than meager resources to also fight off a simultaneous attempt by his Bishop to have him dismissed from the clerical state based on the fact that he is convicted and in prison. In a commentary for the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, I referred to such forced laicization as “a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent of lethal injection.” To date, that one-sided effort has not yet been successful in the MacRae case, but the effort was initiated by the same bishop who was the subject of this letter from a former official at PBS television:
“I contacted the Manchester Diocese from WGBH…A few weeks later, when I met with Bishop [John] McCormack, the very first words he said to me were, ‘This must never leave this office. I believe Fr. MacRae is innocent and his accusers likely lied.’ Today, Bishop McCormack denies ever having said that to me.” (Letter to Judge Brennan, Oct. 24, 2013)
THE BIRTH OF A WITCH HUNT
This whole story began with an explosive, slanderous lie. The question remains, “Whose lie was it?” Bill Donohue wrote that MacRae’s troubles began in 1983 with a vague claim that was investigated, but nothing came of it. In 1985 the same claim surfaced again, was investigated by state officials, and was formally dismissed as “Unfounded.” This story should have ended there, but it was only just beginning.
In September of 1988, Ms. Sylvia Gale with the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) sent a letter to Keene, NH sex crimes Detective James McLaughlin. The letter claimed that she had developed information that before coming to New Hampshire, Father Gordon MacRae was a priest in Florida where “he molested two boys, one of whom was murdered and his body mutilated.” She identified MacRae as the primary suspect in that case, and claimed in the letter that the case remained unsolved when MacRae was sent by Church officials to “Berlen (sic) NH” to avoid that investigation. The Sylvia Gale letter was at best, a bombshell.
The explosive letter went on to claim that this information was passed on to her by a former employee of Catholic Social Services who claimed to have been told this account by her supervisor, Monsignor John Quinn of the Diocese of Manchester. Ms. Gale’s letter alleged that Msgr Quinn threatened to fire his employee if she divulged it further. This unnamed Catholic social services worker appears to have also been the therapist who began the MacRae case with the repeated but unfounded claims in 1983 and 1985.
Until 1994, when he received it as part of pre-trial discovery, Fr. MacRae was entirely unaware of the slanderous letter from Sylvia Gale implicating him in molestation and murder. Nor was he aware of the investigation that ensued as a result. He had no idea that Detective McLaughlin, armed with this letter, proceeded to track down every family whose adolescent sons knew Father MacRae any time during the 1980s. His reports describe questioning twenty-six Keene, NH adolescents and their parents while generating little more than gossip and innuendo for most, and the first thoughts of lucrative opportunities for some.
Among those approached by Detective McLaughlin armed with the Florida molestation and murder story in 1988 was Patricia Grover, the mother of accusers yet to come and herself a state social worker in the same child protection agency that employed Sylvia Gale. It appears from the reports that the two had already collaborated about the Florida letter, and Ms. Grover vowed that she would begin speaking with her sons who knew Fr. MacRae.
One of them, Jonathan Grover, was soon to be discharged from the Navy for refusing its alcohol intervention program after a drunk driving arrest. Another, Thomas, then age 21, had been terminated from his third or fourth stint in residential treatment for drug addiction after he was caught smuggling drugs into the treatment facility. In 1988, these approaches to the Grover brothers yielded no accusations. Five years later, as the prospect of money loomed, they changed their minds.
In regard to the slanderous Florida, claim, Father MacRae had never been a priest in Florida, had never even visited Florida, and had never been assigned in Berlin, NH. A simple check with the records of the Diocese of Manchester would have revealed that he was ordained for that diocese in 1982. He spent the previous four years at St Mary Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland and the four years before that at St Anselm College in Manchester NH. Detective McLaughlin ran with the Sylvia Gale letter without ever bothering to check the facts. This is consistent with a reading of all of his reports in the MacRae case and with new witness statements. It appears that McLaughlin skillfully avoided asking questions or pursuing leads that might yield information contrary to his bias.
I read up to page fifty of Detective McLaughlin’s voluminous, outrageous witch hunt that was his 1988 report before the Florida story emerged again. He learned from unnamed Florida police that the story was bogus and never happened, that there was never a molestation and murder case involving a Catholic priest, and that they had never even heard the name of Father Gordon MacRae.
However McLaughlin’s report also claimed that another Florida, sheriff, a “Sgt. Smith,” revealed that some other priest molested two boys there and was moved by the Church to New Hampshire. “But the names don’t match and your suspect is too young to be that suspect,” McLaughlin quoted the Florida sheriff. His report gives the impression that McLaughlin did not even think to ask for the name of that priest.
It’s of interest in these reports that Fr. MacRae was somehow transformed from a “subject” to a “suspect,” but of what? This was never a case in which individuals went to the police with a complaint about this priest. From all the witness statements I have seen, it was McLaughlin who went to them, and it was McLaughlin who suggested that “a large sum of money” could be had by accusing MacRae. In another report McLaughlin wrote, “I asked him where he stood on a civil lawsuit.”
Meanwhile, written questions to Monsignor John Quinn about his reportedly being the source of the Florida story were answered minimally, with one-word denials but no light. Others in the Diocese of Manchester cooperated in similar fashion and often only after prompting by the suggestion of a subpoena.
“GOING FOR A SEX ABUSE VICTIM WORLD RECORD”
A year before the above investigation ensued, Thomas Grover was a patient at Derby Lodge, a drug treatment center in Berlin, NH, and his third or fourth attempt at such treatment. While there, according to his counselor, he was repeatedly confronted for his distortions, dishonesty, and manipulation. He reportedly told his counselor, Ms. Debbie Collett , that he had been sexually abused by his adoptive father who by this point had been divorced by Patricia Grover.
According to Ms. Collett’s statements, Grover also claimed to have been sexually abused by so many people, in the past that it appeared that he was “going for some sort of sexual abuse victim world record.” Also according to her statements, he never accused Gordon MacRae. Ms. Collett went to on reveal an alleged series of coercive harassment and overt threats from Detective McLaughlin to get her to alter her account before the 1994 trial.
Four and a half years after the Florida letter and Detective McLaughlin’s investigation swept through Keene, NH, Thomas Grover and two of his brothers – and later a third brother, Jay, who once told Detective McLaughlin that MacRae had never done anything wrong – all accused MacRae. Two of them also accused another priest, Father Stephen Scruton, providing highly detailed accounts of rape and molestations by Scruton. Fr. Scruton was also named as someone who witnessed MacRae’s abuse of Jonathan Grover, and in two of his claims, the two priests abused him simultaneously at age 12. Then it was changed to age 14.
However, Fr. Scruton was not present in that parish with MacRae until Jonathan Grover was sixteen years old. When that fact became apparent, it never raised a doubt in McLaughlin’s mind. He just excised Scruton’s name from future reports as though never mentioned, and MacRae became the sole priest accused. McLaughlin wrote in one of his reports that he gave the Grovers a copy of MacRae’s resume “to help them with dates.”
At the end of this three-ring circus, Father MacRae ended up in a trial of the facts where there were no facts, in a courtroom where credibility was the sole measurement of guilt or innocence. But there was also no credibility. Hype and a stellar performance by a practiced con artist had to suffice, and it did.
Late in 2013, a man who was present at that 1994 trial wrote a letter about it to retired Judge Arthur Brennan who presided over the trial. What follows are some excerpts of that letter postmarked November 24, 2013:
“My wife and I were present in the courtroom throughout most of the trial of Fr. Gordon MacRae in 1994. I have had many questions about this trial and much that I’ve wanted to clarify for my own peace of mind… We saw something in your courtroom during the MacRae trial that I don’t think you ever saw. My wife nudged me and pointed to a woman, Ms. Pauline Goupil, who was engaged in what appeared to be clear witness tampering. During questions by the defense attorney, Thomas Grover seemed to feel trapped a few times. On some of those occasions, we witnessed Pauline Goupil make a distinct sad expression with a down-turned mouth and gesturing her finger from the corner of her eye down her cheek at which point Mr. Grover would begin to cry and sob on the stand. The questions were never answered.
“I have been troubled about this for all these years. I know what I saw, and what I saw was clearly an attempt to dupe the court and the jury. If the sobbing and crying were not truthful, then I cannot help but wonder what else was not truthful on the part of Mr. Grover. If he were really a victim who wanted to tell the simple truth, why was it necessary for him and Ms. Goupil to have what clearly appeared to be a set of prearranged signals to alter his testimony? The jury was privy to none of this to the best of my knowledge.”
One of the challenges for the prosecution of this trial was to get Thomas Grover to look like a victim. It wasn’t easy. At 27 years old at trial, Grover was a 5’ 11”, 220-pound ex-high school football player with a history of alcoholism and a police record including domestic violence, assault, forgery, narcotics, and theft charges – all suppressed in this trial by Judge Arthur Brennan. The sobbing Thomas Grover on the witness stand could not mask his real persona for long. Consider this next excerpt from the above letter to Judge Brennan from a witness at trial:
“Secondly, I was struck by the difference in Thomas Grover’s demeanor on the witness stand in your court and his demeanor just moments before and after outside the courtroom. On the stand, he wept and appeared to be a vulnerable victim. Moments later, during court recess, in the parking lot he was loud, boisterous and aggressive. One time he even confronted me in a threatening attempt to alter my own testimony during sentencing.”
The presence of Ms. Goupil in this story is highly problematic, and, to a layman’s eyes, most suspicious. A masters level psychotherapist, she was retained pre-trial by Grover at the behest of his contingency lawyer “because it would look better for the jury,” according to his ex-wife.
At one point in the trial, Ms. Goupil was under a court order to turn over her treatment file to the defense. It contained but a few pages, and not a single therapeutic record pertaining to any claims of abuse of Thomas Grover by Father MacRae. However, Ms. Goupil’s file did contain this letter purportedly written by her to Thomas Grover who apparently had not been showing up for his pre-trial sessions with her.
“Jim tells me MacRae is being offered a deal his lawyers will want him to take so there won’t be a trial. We can just move on to the settlement phase.”
I discussed this letter in “The Trial of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Fraud,” my first installment in this series. The letter was part of a file of perhaps six pages that Ms. Pauline Goupil turned over upon orders of the court. A year later, during evidentiary proceedings from lawsuits brought by Thomas Grover and two of his brothers – a hearing in which everyone but the imprisoned priest had lawyers representing them – Ms. Goupil testified at length about her pre-trial sessions with Thomas Grover and her work in aiding the emergence of his memories of abuse at age 15. For excerpts of that testimony see “Psychotherapists Help Send an Innocent Priest to Prison.”
None of Ms. Goupil’s role in this case ever became known by the Fr. MacRae trial jury. She has since declined to be interviewed or to answer any questions.
KEENE, NEW HAMPSHIRE’S SEX CRIMES CRUSADER
“Jim” in Ms. Goupil’s above letter to Thomas Grover refers to Detective James McLaughlin, a sex crimes investigator for the Keene, NH Police Department. At some point in his investigation of Thomas Grover’s claims against Gordon MacRae, the detective appears to have taken up some sideline work on behalf of Grover’s contingency lawyer.
In 1993 before Fr. MacRae was charged or even aware of the claims against him, McLaughlin obtained a warrant for a “one-party intercept,” a sting attempt to record a telephone call from Thomas Grover to the priest who at that time was involved in ministry at a residential center for priests in New Mexico. Little, if any, of the resultant call made its way into the 1994 trial, however. The recorded claims from Grover elicited nothing more than the bewildered voice of Father MacRae apparently wondering what on Earth the caller was talking about. However, this attempt at a telephone sting revealed something far more interesting.
Detective McLaughlin had apparently learned of a toll-free “800” number for contacting Fr. MacRae. His police report detailed his attempts to call that number from his office at the Keene Police station. However, phone records which coincided with McLaughlin’s reports about executing the warrant indicate that the calls were not placed from his office at Keene Police headquarters, but from the office of Grover’s contingency lawyer 50 miles away. This has never been explained.
Also never explained are statements from Grover’s family members who today reveal that the contingency lawyer gave Grover repeated cash advances before MacRae’s criminal trial, a practice that, if true, was a violation of the New Hampshire Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers. It is but another example of the pervasive lure of money in this story from start to finish.
An immediate problem for anyone trying to get to the bottom of all this is the absence of recorded interviews. It seemed to be Detective McLaughlin’s standard procedure to record interviews with accusers – referred to as “victims” in every one of his reports that I have read.
In 1990, he investigated another priest, Father Stephen Scruton, in a claim brought by T.B. [Note: I withhold the real name of T.B. because I believe today that his claims of abuse are true]. In those reports, McLaughlin carefully documented that he recorded and preserved every interview with T.B. in both audio and video recordings, and even subjected T.B. to a polygraph test. The case resulted in a criminal charge against Father Scruton to which he pled guilty in exchange for probation. It was Scruton’s third such charge.
Another new witness statement from Steven Wollschlager alleges that McLaughlin knowingly elicited false accusations against Fr. MacRae in exchange for cash and an implication that “life could go easier with a lot of money.” Wollschlager was subpoenaed to testify before a Grand Jury to process a new indictment against Fr. MacRae just before the Grover trial, but decided at the last minute that he could not pursue this lie. Wollschlager added that McLaughlin’s reports contain statements that he never said, and distortions of what he did say.
The one recording McLaughlin did appear to make was that of his interview with Thomas Grover’s counselor, Ms. Debbie Collett. Today, she reports that he badgered her, threatened her, and allegedly bullied her into restating her account into something he wanted to hear, and he did all of this on tape. That recording was never turned over to the defense and has never seen the light of day.
Detective McLaughlin did not seem to record his interviews with ANY of the Grover brothers accusing Gordon MacRae. This seems a startling departure from his own longstanding methods and protocols. The choice not to record anything in this one case seems calculated, and it has never been explained. The fact that today, multiple witnesses claim to have been bribed, coerced, badgered, and otherwise manipulated by this detective could lead a rational observer to question what has gone on here, and to doubt the credibility of the claims against this priest.
It is true that there has been a cover-up in the Catholic clergy sex abuse story, but it’s not the one everyone thinks it is. It took place twenty years ago in the picturesque New England city of Keene, New Hampshire.