Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part post. Part II will appear on August 14, the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
No one escapes suffering in some form in life. Mine came on September 23, 1994, when I was shackled and led out of Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene, New Hampshire, having been convicted by a jury of sexual assaults alleged to have occurred nearly a dozen years earlier. At age 41, I was taken to prison with a sentence of 33 ½ to 67 years. I did not commit these crimes. In fact, no one did. But the trial rested solely on the credibility of the accuser and the accused, and I was a Catholic priest accused of rape. The priesthood itself was on trial. No evidence whatsoever was introduced to support the claims. My accuser committed a $200,000 fraud, the amount in settlement he received from my diocese.
Most readers of These Stone Walls know this story well, but a context for this post on giving meaning to suffering requires an overview. Actually, Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist at The Wall Street Journal, recently told the story of my trial and imprisonment better than anyone else in “The Trials of Father MacRae” (WSJ May 11, 2013).
Leading up to my trial, I was repeatedly offered “plea deals” by state prosecutors. Twice I was presented with an offer to serve a sentence of one to three years if I would admit guilt. After the bizarre testimony of the 27-year-old accuser in the middle of trial, I was offered a new deal – this time a sentence of only one to two years – if I would accept a guilty plea. I refused these deals. In the end, I was sentenced to more than thirty times what the State had offered because I preserved my Constitutional right to a fair trial and presumption of innocence. Some observers now believe I got neither.
I could have left this prison over sixteen years ago had I accepted any of the plea deals described above. Many people ask me if I regret not having done so. It is the one part of this story for which I have no second thoughts. Even having to consider those three offers to succumb to a negotiated lie was like falling under the weight of the cross of false witness for the first, second, and third time.
That resolve does not make any easier the fact that on the day I type this, I have been in prison for 6,893 days and nights for crimes that never took place. Catholic writer Ryan A. MacDonald recently wrote of the prospects for a new appeal. A recent post at his wrongful conviction blog, “In the Fr Gordon MacRae Case, Whack-a-Mole Justice Holds Court,” revealed that a New Hampshire judge has denied our new habeas corpus appeal without any hearing on its merits or new evidence. The denial was largely on procedural grounds, according to MacDonald, and now an appeal to a higher court is underway.
I wrote a post last year for These Stone Walls entitled, “Trophy Justice: The Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn Case” in which I pondered whether any Catholic priest could receive justice in the current climate of media fueled frenzy about decades-old, but highly lucrative, claims of sexual abuse. Only time will answer that question.
BITTER HERBS BEFORE THE EXODUS
I have received several letters recently from both men and women who have suffered unspeakable abuses, including forcible rape, as children and young adults. It is a paradox of suffering that just about all these writers see in the false witness and theft of freedom that has befallen me a sort of mirror image of what they have endured. All these writers have asked me the same basic questions in varying forms: “Why are you not bitter?” “How do you deal with despair?” Two recent writers especially had a haunting message which I here use with permission:
“I enjoy your blog very much, and wanted to share something with you. When I was 18, 1 was walking home to my university dorm from a night of partying. I was in a posh area of the city. A man came up behind me, stuck a gun in my ribs, dragged me off, beat the crap out of me (I resisted), and violently raped me . . . The police caught him and he was sent to prison for 20 years. It was his second conviction for this same thing. I was but two years older than the person who accused you falsely, and I never got any money from anyone. . .In summary, bad things can happen to people. It doesn’t entitle someone to a huge payday.”
Another young woman wrote in May:
“I’m a teenage Catholic college student who reads These Stone Walls. I grew up Catholic, but in isolation. My abusive parents were too broken by their own wounds to go beyond the cycle that held them. I endured years of abuse of all kinds, and was trafficked into slavery and forced labor for three years . . . I just want you to know that I understand in some small way your prison. I’ve felt the flashbacks, the nightmares, the panic and anxiety so thick that living it became the norm. It’s hard to be locked away, yearning for a future that seems too distant to ever be reached . . . You give people hope through your words. Your hope beyond prison walls resonates in my heart.”
Both of these courageous young women went on to write that they detect no bitterness in my writings for These Stone Walls, and they find much solace and hope in that fact. Another writer with a very similar story of crushing injustice wrote that she has a friend who has spent a dozen years in prison admittedly guilty of a sexual crime, and who was abandoned by all who knew him – except, miraculously, the courageous writer. He’s now free, but in bitterness and resentment. “So, Father, why are you not bitter?” she asked.
Another letter writer – an author and professional advocate for the wrongly imprisoned – raised this issue just weeks ago. He wrote that he has added my name to the 700 names in his Global Registry of Claims of Innocence (RegistryofCIaimsoflnnocence.org). He asked me to reflect on the question of wrongful imprisonment and despair. He wrote that the falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned are far more susceptible than guilty prisoners to cynicism and bitterness. He is unaware of These Stone Walls, and assumes that after nineteen years of unjust imprisonment I must be emotionally and spiritually devastated.
I have written very little about what actually awaits a priest sent to prison on sexual abuse charges – true or false. Every fiber of my being as a priest tells me that I should spare readers from knowing such a thing. “The Trials of Father MacRae” by Dorothy Rabinowitz in The Wall Street Journal carried a photograph of me being led in restraints from trial to a prison bound van. On the other end of that journey was a trauma that would be difficult for any priest to describe. A small part of this is necessary, however.
I arrived in the prison in midafternoon on September 23, 1994. I was not conscious at the time that it was the Feast of Saint Padre Pio who was himself the subject of false allegations of sexual abuse and is today one of the patrons of These Stone Walls. I was surrounded by a dozen guards in riot gear. I was forced to stand stark naked in the middle of them for an hour while I was humiliated and laughed at. For the first three nights while locked alone in a cell with nothing – naked and with no bedding but a bare concrete slab – tiers of prisoners stomped their feet in unison chanting “Kill the Priest” for hours on end into the night. It was maddening.
On the edge of despair, I remember uttering a spontaneous prayer. I thought of some of the priests I knew, and then asked God that if this must happen, let it happen to me and not them, “Because it would break them, but it will not break me!” No one heard the prayer but God and me, but I know today that it gave me the grace to survive. It was as much an act of defiance as it was a prayer. I lifted the cross willingly – though perhaps then more like Simon of Cyrene than like Christ – but I lifted it.
As it is for all prisoners serving life sentences, those days stretched from day to night to day again; first tens, then hundreds, then thousands of times. The days came and went, over and over. There are no scratch marks on my wall as you would see in a cartoon version of prison, but like all prisoners, my mind kept track of the days and nights.
THE MAN IN THE MIRROR
I calculated one day that I had been a priest for 4,125 days before I became a priest in prison. I then began to calculate the number of days I had been in prison, and thus set myself up for my second prison moment of near despair. It was on December 23, 2006, two days before Christmas, that I stood at the beaten and distorted mirror above the sink in my prison cell to an awareness that on the day to follow, I would be a priest in prison longer than in freedom. For the first time in 4,125 days in prison, I sobbed uncontrollably at this realization. I was losing myself.
On the next day, Christmas Eve, 2006, I received a Christmas card from Father Jim McCurry, a Conventual Franciscan priest who once visited me in prison. Inside the card was a laminated “holy card” depicting Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a member of Father McCurry’s order in whose cause for sainthood Father McCurry had been involved as a Procurator. Laminated cards are not allowed in this prison, and my first thought was about the minor miracle that the card had somehow gotten past the prison censors. Without much thought, I looked around my cell for a place to put it before deciding to tape it above the shaving mirror, the first place I look as I face each day.
The next morning, I was delivered from that other prison, the prison of bitterness and despair. On the very day that the equation changed – the day that I was a priest in prison longer than anywhere else – that image of Saint Maximilian Kolbe changed everything. It is now on the Home Page of These Stone Walls as well. The card depicts him in his Franciscan habit. He has one sleeve in the striped jacket of his Auschwitz prison uniform with his prison number 16670 emblazoned across it. There is a scarlet “P” indicating for his Nazi captors his Polish heritage. He was also a priest, and a falsely accused prisoner brought to Auschwitz on charges trumped up by those who wished to silence him.
As I first gazed at that card above my mirror, I saw at once that Saint Maximilian was telling me that he remained both, a priest and a prisoner. Though only one was chosen by him, neither extinguished the other. His endurance of the evils inflicted on him extinguished none of the light of grace and faith within him. In a spirit of surrender, he not only remained a priest, but he also remained priestly in his very essence, and until his very last breath. Here was a model of the courage to be a father and a priest in the darkest of places.
On July 30, 1941, at 6:00 PM. everyone in Auschwitz Cell Block 14 was forced to stand at attention in the dirt outside the barracks. They watched while their evening food was dumped by guards into a canal. A prisoner from the barracks had escaped. In punishment, ten men were randomly chosen for execution. One of them was a young father who collapsed to the ground despairing that he would never again see his wife and children. Maximilian stepped forward. “Who is this Polish pig?” the Commandant asked. “I am a Catholic priest, and I want to take the place of that man,” Father Kolbe calmly replied.
He and the other nine condemned prisoners were taken to a bunker where they were all stripped naked and chained together to be starved to death. Sixteen days later, on August 14, 1941, Father Kolbe and three others remained alive, though barely. They were injected with poison. On the Eve of the Assumption of Mary, Father Kolbe’s physical body was burned, his ashes scattered to the winds of Auschwitz.
Sixty-five years later, Saint Maximilian appeared above the mirror in my prison cell on the day prison overtook priesthood in my mind and soul. He showed me that the weight of my Cross will never overcome the graces given me to bear it. He taught me a lesson he learned in great suffering. I have one freedom that can never be taken from me: the freedom to choose the person I am going to be in any set of circumstances – even in suffering and in sorrow.
In Part II of this post on August 14, the Feast of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, he will show us something far greater: how to give profound meaning to our suffering and transform it into an instrument of grace.