A troubling back story in the trial and lawsuits against Father Gordon MacRae has been in open view for two decades, but overlooked by both Church and State.
- Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Ryan A. MacDonald of A Ram in the Thicket.
In an article I wrote last September entitled “Judge Arthur Brennan sentenced Father Gordon MacRae to Die in Prison,” I aimed a spotlight at the glaring injustice of the 1994 prosecution of Father Gordon MacRae. Last week in these pages, Fr. George David Byers aimed another spotlight at a Church hierarchy morally paralyzed by litigation. A full and transparent view of justice now requires unveiling a related story in the background of the troubling case against Father Gordon MacRae. It’s a story, as the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus once described in the pages of First Things magazine (June/July 2009), “of a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice.”
This account begins in tragedy. Shortly after noon on Friday, May 11, 1979, Peter Linsley, 35, and Jane Linsley, 28, both of Concord, New Hampshire, walked unannounced through the open door of the rectory at Saint Rose of Lima church in Littleton, NH, a town of (then) about 5,400 in the north of that state. A year earlier, in May, 1978, Peter Linsley was discharged from the state psychiatric hospital after he was declared no longer a danger to himself or others. He previously entered a plea of innocent by reason of insanity to a charge of aggravated assault on a police officer in July, 1977.
As the Linsleys barged into the Littleton church rectory in May, 1979, two parishioners, Mrs. Patricia Lyons and her son, Michael, had been working inside. The home invaders brandished a pair of .357-caliber Magnum revolvers and declared themselves to be “King and Queen of the Church” sent there by God to “cleanse the temple.” They demanded to see the parish priest.
The priest assigned at Saint Rose of Lima parish at the time was the Rev. Stephen Scruton. As the drama unfolded in his parish rectory that day, Fr. Scruton was aboard a plane somewhere over the Atlantic headed for a vacation in Ireland. With her son held at gunpoint, Mrs. Lyons telephoned Rev. Joseph Sands in the nearby town of Lancaster, about 15 miles away. She asked the priest to come immediately. A half hour later, Father Sands became the Linsleys’ third hostage.
After the arrival of Father Sands, the couple ordered Mrs. Lyons to retrieve a dog left in their car, but once outside she ran for help. Meanwhile, the priest convinced her son, Mike, to escape by jumping from a second floor window, reportedly telling him, “If you want to get out alive, get out quickly.” Father Joe Sands thus made himself the sole hostage.
Mrs. Lyons went right to the police. Within a half hour, a State Police SWAT team surrounded the parish house, and established a telephone link with the Linsleys. The tape-recorded negotiations went on for the next five hours, ending at 5:22 PM when four shots were fired inside the rectory. Peter Linsley murdered Father Joe Sands, then shot and killed Jane Linsley, and then, finally, turned his gun on himself.
At the time in 1979, sitting New Hampshire Governor, the late Honorable Hugh Gallen was a native of Littleton and a friend of Father Stephen Scruton whose vacation was cut short as he was quickly returned to a parish mired in tragedy. According to a priest who had once lived in that rectory with Father Scruton, Governor Gallen took command of the scene and ordered the five hours of taped negotiations between the Linsleys and police negotiators to be sealed. The tapes never became public.
That priest, the late Rev. Maurice (Moe) Rochefort, was a friend of both Father Joe Sands and Father Gordon MacRae. MacRae once wrote of him in an article entitled “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” “Father Moe” reportedly once told MacRae that the Littleton rectory and its parish priest were not random targets. He said that the gunman sought revenge against Father Stephen Scruton specifically for some unknown previous encounter at the church. That has long been rumored among priests of the Diocese of Manchester who knew Scruton, but none would respond to inquiries about Father Scruton or this incident.
A few years ago, Father MacRae wrote a haunting and deeply sad article entitled “Dark Night of a Priestly Soul.” It was about a priest he knew in his Diocese who 10 years ago tragically took his own life after an accusation surfaced against him from 1972. That accusation was also alleged to have occurred at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Littleton. The accuser in that case also accused another priest, Fr. Stephen Scruton.
During the five years before the tragedy that took the life of Father Joe Sands, Gordon MacRae had been a seminary student with the New York Province of the Capuchin Order. After completing the one-year Capuchin novitiate in 1974, MacRae was assigned to Saint Anthony Friary in Hudson, NH from where he attended nearby Saint Anselm College. He graduated with degrees in philosophy and psychology, with honors, in 1978. During the summer of 1978, the young seminarian sought the counsel of fellow Capuchin and mentor, Father Benedict Groeschel, as he discerned leaving the Capuchins to pursue graduate studies in theology as a diocesan priest.
It was an amiable transition. For the next four years (1978 to 1982) seminarian Gordon MacRae studied at St. Mary Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland where he earned simultaneous degrees in divinity and pastoral counseling, and a Pontifical degree in theology. His summers were spent working in three New Hampshire parishes.
A year after the tragic death of Father Sands, in June of 1980, Father Stephen Scruton was transferred from Littleton to Saint John Parish in Hudson, NH on the state’s southern border. Because seminarian Gordon MacRae had lived in that community as a Capuchin, he requested to be ordained at Saint John church on June 5, 1982. He was the only candidate for priesthood ordination for the Diocese of Manchester that year. It was there, in late May and early June of 1982 that he first met Father Stephen Scruton.
In an article last year on These Stone Walls entitled, “The Expendables: Our Culture’s War Against Catholic Priests,” Father MacRae wrote of some especially challenging conditions in his first assignment as a priest about an hour’s drive from the town in which he was ordained. For an occasional day off, he would drive to Hudson where he had developed many friendships during his years as a Capuchin. On a few occasions, he also visited the three priests at Saint John Parish in Hudson.
During one of those visits in 1983, a Hudson parish secretary pulled Father MacRae aside and told him of a troubling incident in the rectory. She said that she suspected that Father Scruton’s assistant, Father Mark Fleming, had been sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy in this rectory. She told Father MacRae that she saw nothing specific, but that her instinct on this was very strong. She said she tried to discuss this with Father Scruton, but he brushed it aside and told her not to mention it to anyone else. Father MacRae reportedly told her that if she saw anything at all that caused her to make such a conclusion, she was obligated to report it to police. Other than that conversation, Father MacRae had no connection whatsoever to that case.
Soon after in 1983, Father Stephen Scruton reported to officials in the Diocese of Manchester that he walked in on and witnessed his associate, Father Mark Fleming, in a sexual incident with a minor boy from the parish. A report was made by the Diocese to state officials as required by New Hampshire law, and the state launched an investigation.
Nothing of this became public until two decades later when the Diocese of Manchester released its priests’ personnel files in an unprecedented agreement with the State Attorney General’s Office. It was revealed only twenty years after the 1983 investigation by the state, that Father Fleming had abused three boys, all brothers. No criminal charges were filed, but Fleming was removed from ministry and placed at a psychiatric treatment center in St. Louis. In a 2003 article, the Nashua (NH) Telegraph reported on this story (Albert McKeon, “Priest Turned in another, then was also caught,” March 6, 2003).
In 1984, a year after the Hudson case involving Fathers Scruton and Fleming, Father Stephen Scruton was arrested for lewd conduct and indecent exposure at a highway rest area near Londonderry, NH. According to news accounts, those charges were dropped when he agreed to a plea deal for a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass. Scruton was placed on leave of absence for six months, then assigned to a small parish in Bennington, NH to replace a priest on sick leave. Upon that priest’s return, he complained to Diocesan officials that Father Scruton embezzled parish funds. The priest threatened civil litigation. Scruton was placed on leave again. During this period he was arrested a second time for lewd conduct and indecent exposure at a highway rest area in Massachusetts. Those charges were never fully processed.
In June of 1985, Father Stephen Scruton was assigned as pastor of Saint Bernard Parish in Keene, NH where Father Gordon MacRae had already served as associate pastor for the preceding two years. In a protracted statement entitled, “Affidavit of Rev. Gordon MacRae” posted on These Stone Walls, MacRae described in detail the next two years in that parish with Father Scruton. This document is well worth the time to understand the nightmarish conditions faced by MacRae in these years of priesthood.
After multiple incidents described in Father MacRae’s Affidavit linked above, Father Stephen Scruton was arrested once again for lewd conduct and indecent exposure at a highway rest area near Keene. His arrest occurred on the afternoon of Easter Sunday in 1987. In police reports, Father Scruton cited the stresses of Holy Week as the cause for his behavior. He pled guilty to the charge in Keene District Court.
To Father MacRae’s shock, Scruton was not immediately removed from the parish by Diocese of Manchester officials. In fact, MacRae heard nothing from anyone connected to his Diocese throughout Scruton’s arrest and the subsequent news accounts. Father Scruton granted an interview with a Keene Sentinel reporter to tell of how his arrest was an “opportunity” to educate the public about sexual addiction. It was then that Father MacRae picked up the phone and called Church officials to demand Scruton’s removal from the parish. Scruton was sent to a treatment facility in Golden Valley, MN, but not before a local bank official called Father MacRae to report Scruton’s embezzlement of $20,000 in parish funds.
Six years later, in 1994, Father Gordon MacRae faced criminal charges and simultaneous civil lawsuits brought by three brothers, Thomas, Jonathan, and David Grover alleging abuses from sometime between 1978 and 1983. Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote masterfully of the details of MacRae’s trial and the charges brought by these brothers and other related claims in “A Priest’s Story: The Trial of Father Gordon MacRae,” in April, 2005, article in The Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan and David Grover, the first of the Grover brothers to make accusations, claimed to have been repeatedly assaulted in Saint Bernard Rectory in Keene, and in other places, by both Father Gordon MacRae and Father Stephen Scruton acting both separately and simultaneously. Both brothers claimed that these assaults first occurred when they were twelve years old.
An immediate and never explained problem was that Father MacRae was never inside the Keene rectory until June of 1983 when Jonathan Grover was 14 years old and David Grover was just two weeks shy of turning 18. Father Scruton was never inside that rectory until June of 1985 when these brothers were ages 16 and 20 respectively. However, Father Scruton refused to answer any questions put by Father MacRae’s defense before trial, and fled the state when an attempt to subpoena him.
As these facts emerged pre-trial, the investigating police detective apparently did nothing to investigate or question them. He recorded no interviews, left no evidence to determine who said what to whom and when. At one point, he gave the Grover brothers a copy of Father MacRae’s resume so they could get their dates straight. Then he simply eliminated Father Stephen Scruton from all future reports in the case as though his name had never come up.
The progression of this story from this point on is utterly shocking, and was documented by me in “Truth in Justice: Was the Wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?” I have no lingering doubts about the answer to that question, and neither will you if you read on. I recommend scrolling to the subheading, “Part II: Déjà Vu,” and reading from there.
After the onslaught of mediated settlements as described by Father Byers last week, many deceased priests of the Diocese of Manchester were accused, and could do nothing, of course, to defend themselves or their names. Nearly 30 years after his tragic death, Father Joe Sands was posthumously accused. Remember David Pierre’s great article in these pages one year ago, “Kicking the Dead and Collecting Cash.”