The year behind These Stone Walls brought some Concord Prison Blues, a Consecration to Divine Mercy, a corruption unmasked, and signs and wonders from Patron Saints.
Each year as a New Year dawns on These Stone Walls, I have posted a sort of year in review. I have traditionally modeled it after a weekly news commentary that I like on FOX News, the Journal Editorial Report.
Every Saturday afternoon (usually repeated on Sundays as well) Fox News hosts members of The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board as they weigh in on the week’s top news stories. Each episode ends with “The Hits & Misses of the Week.”
What follows are the Hits & Misses of the year on These Stone Walls. Instead of picking the “Hits & Misses” myself this year, I decided to let you do it. So I reviewed TSW’s stats reports and chose the twelve most-read and shared posts as our “Hits” of 2017, and the trying times in which I wrote them as “Misses.”
The posts you seemed to like the best in 2017 were usually written under the worst conditions. I wrote 47 original posts this year. One was hopelessly lost in the outgoing prison mail never to be seen again. I no longer even remember its title. Five others were guest posts.
A MISS AND A HIT: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
You may recall that I type my posts on an old Smith Corona typewriter in a prison cell. From there, they are mailed to Father George David Byers in North Carolina where he scans, edits, adds the links and then emails them to New South Wales, Australia where These Stone Walls is published. There are sometimes snags along the route.
My August 23 post was the one lost in the mail as mentioned above. So when August 23 rolled around, we had nothing to publish. However, when our stats report came in the following week, I learned that the week we had no post at all saw the year’s highest traffic. Should I take this personally? It was a mystery to be solved.
It turned out that on the day we didn’t publish anything, a site in The Netherlands posted a Facebook message and link to a post I wrote on Fathers Day five years ago. From that site’s Facebook page, it went viral and was shared nearly13,000 times. So the most read and shared post of 2017 was actually one I wrote in 2012: “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”
A GUEST HIT!
Our second most popular post of the year was not even written by me. (Hmmph!) To honor the 100th Anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima in 2017, historian Craig Turner produced a CD for Lighthouse Catholic Media which placed the story in a riveting historical context. Craig then sent me a letter offering to let me use his outline if it might be a fit for These Stone Walls.
So I decided this would be a timely guest post. With Craig’s permission, I had to do a little editing to get it down to a size consistent with other TSW posts. It follows a fascinating thread from Fatima through the history of the 20th Century, and if you love history as I do, it was impossible to pass up.
With over 3,000 shares on social media, Craig Turner’s guest article was the year’s second most popular post. It was “How Our Lady of Fatima Saved a World in Crisis.”
THREE HITS THAT WERE HOME RUNS
The next two most popular posts of the year were published back to back in late June. It’s usually a time when TSW slows down a little while summer vacation plans rule the day. But not this year. I addressed two stories that much of the secular news had either brushed over or reported with blatant bias. Both stories seemed to presage the scandal that has since swept Hollywood and Washington, D.C. (More on that in coming weeks).
USA Today carried a shamelessly biased front-page account of a scandal that erupted on the Island of Guam. By the time it was over, a classic moral panic formed that ousted the Archbishop and implicated many priests – most of them long since deceased – in a spate of claims of abuse from decades ago.
As is typical for USA Today, the fact that the claims were forty years old, and accompanied by expectations of unquestioned monetary settlements, were the story’s most downplayed aspects. When I wrote about this story, the National Catholic Register’s The Big Pulpit made it the headlined feature post of the day.
“On the Island of Guam, Is the Eighth Commandment Discarded?” was shared well over 1,000 times on social media and drew many readers in Guam and from around the globe.
That post and two to follow were our third, fourth, and fifth most popular posts of the year. One was “Will Fr Charles Engelhardt’s Prosecutor Take a Plea Deal?” It told the story of how the late Philadelphia priest, Father Charles Engelhardt died chained to a gurney in a Pennsylvania prison hospital ward after being wrongly sent to prison on trumped-up charges.
Rogue Philadelphia prosecutor Seth Williams was subsequently charged in multiple federal indictments for corruption and accepting bribes. After I wrote the above post, Seth Williams pled guilty to the charges and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Every objective observer of this story now believes that the charges he brought against Monsignor William Lynn and the late Father Engelhardt were bogus. Justice was itself one of Seth Williams’ victims.
Months earlier in early February, I wrote an exposé about revelations of long-suspected fraud in the victim rights group, SNAP – the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. I was shocked by how widely this post was read, not only at These Stone Walls but in multiple other venues like Pewsitter that carried it. “David Clohessy Resigns SNAP in Alleged Kickback Scheme” was also featured on Father John Zuhlsdorf’s blog which brought thousands of readers to the post.
In the 15 years since the U.S. bishops haplessly invited SNAP representatives to speak and help formulate policy at the 2002 Bishops Conference in Dallas, this organization and its leaders brought immense damage upon the Church and priesthood in the United States. SNAP’s Executive Director, David Clohessy, and founder, the late Barbara Blaine, both resigned in the wake of the 2017 story of fraud and lawyer kickback schemes, leaving many questions still unanswered.
A HIT FOLLOWED BY A MISS TRANSFORMED: DIVINE MERCY
From a purely spiritual point of view, the 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy was a pivotal year behind These Stone Walls. As it gave way to 2017, 1 wrote a January post about an event of great importance for the tapestry of our lives. It was a widely read and shared post entitled, “Consecration to Divine Mercy: 33 Days to Merciful Love.”
The ministry of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts reached into this prison in profound and wonderful ways this year. Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, and the Marian Community embody the Corporal Works of Mercy, not only in their fraternal spiritual outreach to me as a priest but in their spiritual adoption of Pornchai Moontri who has come to hold a special place in their hearts.
And that spiritual adoption has had a global reach. People on five continents have reached out to Pornchai to help restore his life after reading of him not only at These Stone Walls, but in Marian Helper magazine. Recently, a reader wrote that he called a Catholic monastery to request a Mass intention for Pornchai for Divine Mercy Sunday. The voice at the other end said, “Pornchai Moontri? You must be reading These Stone Walls.”
It’s a mystery that 2017 started off that way spiritually while for the next eight months your friends behind these stone walls were enduring the most trying conditions we have faced in this prison. The most spiritually hopeful post of 2017 was written in the most bizarre conditions and those conditions became another of our most read and shared posts of the year, “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.”
The year wore on, as you may already know, and we were delivered from the place where I had spent the last 23 years. Unlike the round-the-clock confinement of where I’ve been, our new quarters have unfettered access to the outside and exercise. I now climb up to 1,000 stairs a day out there and have lost about fifteen pounds. Writing suffers a little because of this move, and some of you may have noticed my slow response to mail, but I have 23 years of “outside” to catch up on.
A HIT READ BY MANY BUT MISSED BY TOO MANY MORE
The hardest post I have ever written came at the end of October this year. It was very well read and shared, but as the year draws to a close I hope it doesn’t lose its momentum. It isn’t an easy post to read, but its many incisive comments reveal the depth of justice in the hearts of those who read and shared it.
It’s a natural inclination for Americans, especially, to see and trust in our judicial and criminal justice systems. But this post delivers a much-needed dose of reality. Our justice system has become self-contained and self-referential, and as the story of rogue prosecutor Seth Williams reveals above, it repels oversight and public accountability.
People have forgotten that in a democracy, police, prosecutors and judges are public servants. Accountability and transparency are part of a sacred trust upon which the sun has set.
The post I refer to is one that I hope you will read anew, understand, and share with others. It is too easily overlooked because it reveals an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. So at year’s end, I want to ask readers to revisit “Plea Deals or a Life Sentence in the Live Free or Die State.”
A BIG HIT COMING SOON: TABLETS IN PRISON
The New Year will be ushering in a major change behind these stone walls. I don’t mean the blog, but rather the place in which it is written. The New Hampshire Department of Corrections is following a trend sweeping prisons across the United States.
After 23 years with severely limited contact with the outside world, a computerized tablet system will become available for sale to prisoners here in the first months of 2018.
This prison has contracted with a company called Global Tel link (GTL.com) to sell tablets to prisoners with a series of paid subscription services to include email, video email, telephone, ebooks, subscriptions, and a list of other paid services such as music and movies. The nine-inch tablet will be similar to an Android-based Samsung with touchscreen for $149.00.
The biggest change for me will be the availability of Internet-based telephone and email services. Presently where I live, there are two telephones available for 96 prisoners. The phones are outside which means that placing a call during a New Hampshire winter to hear your messages and comments requires up to a one-hour wait bundled up against the cold and wind.
When I purchase a tablet, it will have a headset and the ability to place calls right from our toasty 60-square-foot cell with no waiting outside for an available telephone. Friends can still not call me but will be able to leave me messages. This will be the first time in my 23 years here that anyone can reach me directly from the outside world.
The motives behind this are not necessarily stellar, but it doesn’t matter. With draconian and every growing restrictions on prison visits and incoming mail, I suspect there is an underlying hope to limit – or even eliminate – most first class mail and perhaps even visits.
In the process, the Global Tel Link Company will make a lot of money from prisoners and their families and friends, and the prison system will share in the profits. Prison officials also have an interest in keeping everyone distracted and occupied in an overcrowded, understaffed prison. So everyone wins.
The prison administration says this program will bring the technology available to prisoners from about 1980 to 2018 almost instantly. This seems almost surreal after over 23 years of severe restrictions in contacts with the outside world. So no matter what machinations lay behind it, this is a promising development for prisoners, and the enthusiasm for it is building as the New Year unfolds.
In addition to the initial costs for the tablets and services, telephone calls will have a per-minute charge, and emails will be charged per message and by volume of text, but the fees seem reasonable. Readers who are able and want to assist with the expenses may do so here at These Stone Walls or through the means described at our “Contact” and “Donate” pages. I will have further news about this in January.
In the year to come, May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He let his countenance shine upon you. May He bring you peace.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae:
My “Hits & Misses” are the most-read posts at These Stone Walls in 2017, but not the most important posts. I could not write at all but if not for signs and wonders from the intercession of our Patron Saints. They walked with us in dark times this year. In this Year of Grace, may they walk with you as well. These posts honor our Patron Saints behind These Stone Walls:
- How I Met Your Mother: Mary and the Fatima Century
- Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance
- Padre Pio: Patron Saint for the Heavy Lifting in Heaven
- Saint Michael the Archangel and the Art of War