The Catholic social justice blog These Stone Walls marks nine years of writing from the outer rim. This “truly compelling venue on the Internet” began at a toilet.
For the first time in the nearly 24 years of my imprisonment, those who assist me with These Stone Walls are able to contact me directly, right in my prison cell, without having to wait for a snail mail letter or telephone call from me. And after a long and frigid New Hampshire winter of waiting in line for hours outside to make such calls, I can now make them in the privacy of my cell with no wait at all.
This small device called a GTL tablet almost instantly changed life in this confinement when it first rolled out in April this year. Father John Zuhlsdorf at “Father Z’s Blog” wrote about that development. The new technology does not allow for Internet access – no U.S. prison permits that – but it allows for two-way communications with anyone “out there” who sets up a GTL account.
The GTL Company (formerly called Global Tel Link) markets this tablet system to prisons across the country. In overcrowded, understaffed prisons like this one, it solved some major problems overnight. A month ago we had daily drama – even violence – over access to prisoner telephones because their number never increased while the prisoner population exploded.
Here’s a staggering statistic. In the 30 years from 1985 to 2015, the New Hampshire state population grew 34 percent while its prison population grew nearly 600 percent. Just a month ago, the ratio of prisoners to telephones was 33 to one. If you have teenagers in your home, just imagine 33 of them bickering over the use of a single telephone. Prisoners here have been sent to the hole or even hospitalized over telephones.
Such is the place in which I live. Nine years ago this month, after spending 15 years in this prison – a time that I now call “the dark ages” – These Stone Walls came into being. It was the result of a set of circumstances that were, like so much of this story, a little strange. This blog was born out of conflict and controversy which then gave birth to something some readers call wonderful.
ANGER AND IRONY AT THESE STONE WALLS
You know some of this story from our “ABOUT” page, but you do not know all of it because I have never written it. Recently, in a telephone discussion with one of the people who helps with TSW, the topic of how this all began came up. I told her the story behind the story, and she said, “You must someday tell this to your readers.” So here it is with its flaws and failings exposed for all to see.
I wrote a post some months ago entitled, “Finding Your Peace in Suffering and Sorrow.” To date, it has been shared on Facebook nearly 10,000 times. In that post, I described some of the early days of languishing in prison with hope repeatedly building and then falling apart. That post reveals a strange account of how the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in Manhattan affected an inquiry into my case being conducted by a writer at The Wall Street Journal.
On April 27 and 28, 2005, the Journal published its explosive two-part investigative report by Dorothy Rabinowitz who was awarded a Pulitzer for her courageous work on sexual abuse witch hunts (The WSJ followed this up in 2013 with “The Trials of Father MacRae”). One result of the series was that Catholic League President Bill Donohue invited me in 2005 to write my first article for Catalyst, “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud.”
Also as a result of those WSJ articles, I was contacted by Monsignor Michael Higgins, J.C.D., a San Diego canon lawyer who founded an advocacy organization called “Justice for Priests & Deacons.” Monsignor Higgins, who passed away two years ago, was a strong advocate for accused priests. An Irish-born priest, he earned his doctoral degree in canon law and was a brilliant man.
But he was also, at times, a very angry one. Monsignor Higgins was quoted in the excellent book by Australian Father James Valladares, Ph. D., Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast (iUniverse 2012) which also contains many excerpts from These Stone Walls:
“When a bishop demonstrates an abuse of power he is attacking the basis of all human rights and integrity. When used against a cleric, he is attacking one of the most defenseless of all people in the Church. When a cleric is not told who is making the accusation, or what the actual accusation is… the cleric is powerless to defend himself or even prove his innocence. The abuse of power is driving a wedge between bishops and priests.” (Msgr. Michael Higgins, J.C.D, quoted in Hope Spring Eternal in the Priestly Breast, p 79)
I agree entirely with that assessment. Monsignor Higgins was also highly emotionally charged on these issues and established a pattern of open confrontation with bishops and other Church officials that I simply could not endorse. In the few years before These Stone Walls began, he often contacted me with a challenge to let him tell my story in a way that would place others, including bishops and priests, under public ridicule.
“What have they ever done for you? Why would you protect them?” he asked in a message. The wonderful book by Father Valladares cited above has among its many excerpts from These Stone Walls a segment quoted from me about another priest. When Father Valladares included this in his book, he had no idea that the priest referred to was Monsignor Michael Higgins:
“It is ironic that this priest is often angry with me because he doesn’t think that I am angry enough. I assure you, he is wrong on that score. But being angry and feeling let down does not excuse me from doing the right thing. It does not excuse me from fidelity to the Gospel, fidelity to the Church, and fidelity to my own sense of right and wrong. At the end of the day, I am still wrongly imprisoned, but I have the freedom to choose the person I am going to be while wrongly imprisoned.” (Father Gordon MacRae quoted in Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast, p. 275)
Back in 2006, three years before These Stone Walls began, I received a letter from another priest and canon lawyer who had been helping me. His exasperated letter revealed that Monsignor Higgins had filed a civil lawsuit against him charging him with slander and defamation simply for telling another priest that Monsignor Higgins is “a good canon lawyer but an angry man.”
Well, flatly, he was right. At the same time, Monsignor Higgins wrote to tell me of his plan to visit me at the Concord, NH prison. From there, his plan was to go stand in front of the chancery office of my diocese with a picket sign accusing them of violating the canonical and civil rights of me and other priests. He would turn his protest into a SNAP-like news event.
So I tried to leverage him with reason, the only tool I had, told him in a letter that I would refuse his visit if he does not drop his angry and unfounded lawsuit against that innocent priest who had done nothing but tell the truth. To make this contentious story shorter, he refused to drop the lawsuit, and when he showed up here for his meeting, I refused to see him.
He later referred to this episode as “The standoff between Ireland and Scotland.” For prison officials caught in the middle, it was the strangest thing. Monsignor Higgins stood at the entrance to the prison demanding that guards bring me there whether I wanted to go or not.
I felt I had to stand my ground, so they told him that I am refusing the visit. He then went home and immediately dropped the lawsuit against the other priest. All was forgiven, and I graciously invited him back.
FROM THE BONES OF CONTENTION
Now, you might be asking, “Why is he telling us this story?” It’s because arising from under the rubble of these bones of contention was another story that emerged because of it. It just so happened that on the same day I refused the visit from Monsignor Higgins, he had met another priest arriving at Logan Airport in Boston just over an hour’s drive from this prison. That priest was Father James McCurry.
Monsignor Higgins offered to drive him to wherever he was going, so on the way, he told Father McCurry the whole story of what had just happened, including his decision to go home and drop his lawsuit against my friend. Father McCurry said, “I’d really like to meet this guy.” So, being in no great hurry, the two drove north back to Concord. Monsignor Higgins waited outside after leaving Fr. McCurry at the prison entrance.
That visit should not have happened at all, but it did happen. Father McCurry had made no prior arrangement, and he should have been turned away, but when he produced some ID indicating that he is a priest, a confused guard told him that I seem to be refusing visits from priests these days, but he would try.
So for the second time that day, I was summoned to the prison Visiting Room. The only information I was given was that this is a different priest than the one I refused to see that morning. Father McCurry and I met for ninety minutes in the Visiting Room. What happened that day and the days to follow would radically alter my life behind these prison walls.
Father McCurry’s first words to me after our greeting were not, “Gee, you really handled Monsignor Higgins.” I might have expected that. His first words were, “Have you ever heard of Saint Maximilian Kolbe?” Father McCurry, it turned out, was a Postulator for the cause of sainthood for Father Kolbe. What happened next became my first post on These Stone Walls three years later.
I am for the most part blind and deaf to how the things that I write are perceived out there in the land of the free. In his eye-opening book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, the Fraud, the Stories, David F. Pierre, Jr. used a full chapter to profile the case against me and the emergence of These Stone Walls which he called “truly a compelling venue on the Internet.”
I have no way to measure whether that is true. But it IS true that, just as my above introduction to this post states, These Stone Walls began at a toilet. It was one of those mass produced stainless steel toilet and sink units welded together and functioning – more or less – in a corner of just about every prison cell in America.
What occurred in the corner of my cell as a result of Father McCurry’s visit that day changed everything. It only happened as a result of my spat with Monsignor Michael Higgins and it was my first post giving birth to These Stone Walls in early July 2009. That first post was quite brief, and I hope you will take just a few minutes to read it when I append it at the end of this one.
It was brief because it was written before I discovered that I had a lot to say about a lot of things. Though I don’t remember which post it was, I once wrote about an incident that occurred in my parish years ago. It was the height of allergy season, and as the Mass began I was losing my voice. I struggled through the Gospel, but by the end of it my larynx constricted and I could not speak at all.
I let the Lector lead the parish in the Nicene Creed and then the Prayers of the Faithful. At the Offertory, just as I lifted the host for the Berekah Blessing of the Bread, I felt my voice returning. So I said, “I’m sorry we had no homily, but I lost my voice.” The entire congregation said in unison, “Blessed be God Forever!”
Please share this. Please also say a prayer of thanks for Father Jim McCurry and for the soul of Monsignor Michael Higgins. Now kindly read my first and shortest post that began These
Stone Walls: “St Maximilian Kolbe and the Man in the Mirror.”
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Readers may recall that I was recently drafted for the role of President Donald Trump in a theatre production here in Concord in May. It had two sold-out performances. I hope one day soon to write about it and even include some photos. Just after I portrayed President Trump, TSW reader Claire Dion offered to help open and manage a Twitter account for me and These Stone Walls. So, if you’re not scared already, please feel free to follow us there.
And to mark nine years of These Stone Walls, you may enjoy revisiting these posts in honor of our Patron Saints:
- 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