For Catholic priests, merely being accused is now evidence of guilt. A closer look at the prosecution of Fr Gordon MacRae opens a window onto a grave injustice.
Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part guest post by Ryan A. MacDonald.
“Those aware of the facts of this case find it hard to imagine that any court today would ignore the perversion of justice it represents.” (Dorothy Rabinowitz, The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2013)
The above quote says it all. I wrote for These Stone Walls two weeks ago to announce a new federal appeal filed in the Father Gordon MacRae case. I mentioned my hope to write in more detail about the perversion of justice cited by Dorothy Rabinowitz in “The Trials of Father MacRae,” her third major article on the MacRae case in The Wall Street Journal.
The details of how such injustice is perpetrated are especially important in cases like Father MacRae’s because there was no evidence of guilt – not one scintilla of evidence – presented to the jury in his 1994 trial. I recently wrote “Justice and a Priest’s Right of Defense in the Diocese of Manchester,” an article with photographs of the exact location where the charges against this priest were claimed to have occurred. If you read it, you can judge for yourself whether those charges were even plausible.
The sexual assaults for which Father Gordon MacRae has served two decades in prison were to have taken place five times in as many weeks, all in the light of day in one of the busiest places in downtown Keene, New Hampshire. Yet no one saw anything. No one heard anything. Accuser Thomas Grover – almost age 16 when he says it happened, and age 26 when he first accused the priest – testified that he returned from week to week after each assault because he repressed the memory of it all while having a weekly “out- of- body experience.”
The complete absence of evidence in the case might have posed a challenge for the prosecution if not for a pervasive climate of accusation, suspicion, and greed. It was the climate alone that convicted this priest, that and a press release from the Diocese of Manchester that declared him guilty before his trial commenced. As Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote,
“Diocesan officials had evidently found it inconvenient to dally while due process took its course.”
It was 1994, the onset of fear and loathing when many New England priests were accused, when the news media focused its sights on Catholic scandal, when lawyers and insurance companies for bishops and dioceses urged as much distance as possible from the accused while quiet settlements mediated from behind closed doors doled out millions to accusers and their lawyers. Accusation alone became all the evidence needed to convict a priest, and in Keene, New Hampshire – according to some who were in their teens and twenties then – word got out that accusing a priest was like winning the lottery.
The fact that little Keene, NH – a town of about 22,000 in 1994 – had a full time sex crimes detective on its police force of 30 brought an eager ace crusader into the deck stacking against Gordon MacRae. By the time of the 1994 trial, Detective James F. McLaughlin boasted of having found more than 1,000 victims of sexual abuse in 750 cases in Keene. The concept that someone might be falsely accused escaped him completely. He reportedly once told Father MacRae, “I have to believe my victims.” This priest WAS one of his victims.
The only “hard evidence” placed before the MacRae jury was a document proving that he is in fact an ordained Catholic priest. The prosecution was aided much by an outrageous statement from Judge Arthur Brennan instructing jurors to disregard inconsistencies in Thomas Grover’s testimony. This is no exaggeration. As Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote, those jurors “had much to disregard.”
It is important to unravel the facts of this prosecution, not all of which could appear in the current appeal briefs. I have done some of this unraveling in an article entitled, “In the Fr Gordon MacRae Case, Whack-A-Mole Justice Holds Court.” I consider it an important article because it addresses head-on many of the distortions put forth by those committed to keeping the momentum against priests and the Church going. This is a lucrative business, after all. Most importantly, that article exposes the “serial victims” behind MacRae’s prosecution.
SEDUCED AND BETRAYED
Had I been a member of the jury that convicted Father MacRae, I would no doubt feel betrayed today to learn that Thomas Grover, a sole accuser at trial, accused so many men of sexual abuse “that he appeared to be going for some sort of sexual abuse victim world record” according to Grover’s counselor, Ms. Debbie Collett. That fact was kept from the jury, and if any one was seduced in this case, it was the jurors themselves.
Ms. Collett reports today that Grover accused many – including his adoptive father – during therapy sessions with her in the late 1980s, but never accused MacRae. Ms. Collett also reports today that she was herself “badgered, coerced, and threatened” by Detective McLaughlin and another Keene police officer into altering her testimony and withholding the truth about Thomas Grover’s other past abuse claims from the jury. If the justice system does not take seriously her statement about pre-trial coercion, it undermines the very foundations of due process.
I subscribe to The Wall Street Journal’s weekly “Law Blog” entries in its online edition. A recent posting was by a high-profile corporate lawyer who occasionally undertakes appeals for wrongfully convicted criminal defendants. After winning the freedom of one unjustly imprisoned man who served 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, the lawyer wrote that justice has a greater hope of prevailing in such a case when a layman with no training in the law can read the legal briefs in an appeal and conclude beyond a doubt that an injustice has indeed taken place.
This was exactly my reaction after reading Attorney Robert Rosenthal’s federal appeal brief filed on behalf of Father MacRae. I have heard of similar reactions from others. One reader recently wrote, “I just read the appeal brief and I’m stunned! How was this man ever convicted in a US court of law?” Another reader wrote, “Taken as a whole, the MacRae trial was a serious breach of American justice and decency. Had I been a juror, I would today feel betrayed and angry by what I have just learned.”
A few weeks ago in his post on These Stone Walls, Father MacRae wrote of how justice itself was a victim in the prosecution of Monsignor William Lynn in a Philadelphia courtroom. That conviction was recently reversed by an appeals court in a ruling that described that trial and conviction as “fundamentally flawed.” In his appeal of Father MacRae’s trial, Attorney Robert Rosenthal has masterfully demonstrated the fundamental flaws that brought about the prosecution of MacRae and the verdict that sent him to prison. Taken as a whole, no competent person could conclude from those pleadings that the conviction against this priest should stand.
PSYCHOTHERAPIST FOR THE PROSECUTION
I would like to seize upon a few of the details, and magnify them to demonstrate just how very flawed this trial was. I’ll begin with some excerpts from a document I recently obtained in this case. It is a letter written by an observer at Father MacRae’s 1994 trial.
The letter, dated October 30, 2013, was addressed to retired judge Arthur Brennan who presided over the trial of Father MacRae and who sentenced him to a prison term of 67 years. The letter was written by a man whose career was in the news media, a fact that very much influenced his attention to detail throughout the trial of Father MacRae. The letter writer expressed to the retired judge that he held his pen for so many years, but now that state courts are no longer involved in this appeal, he felt more free to write. Here is a portion of that letter:
“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 questioning 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 downturned 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.” (Letter to retired judge Arthur Brennan, October 30, 2013)
The witness tampering appears to have been premeditated, not spontaneous. When defense lawyer Ron Koch, a rather large man, stood to cross examine accuser Thomas Grover at the MacRae trial, Grover turned to Judge Brennan to protest. He complained that the lawyer was asking his questions while standing by the defense table where Defendant MacRae was seated. “I don’t want to have to look at him,” Grover protested. Judge Arthur Brennan – in apparent disregard of the Constitutional right of defendants to face their accusers – instructed the defense lawyer to remove himself to the farthest point in the courtroom away from MacRae to cross examine Grover.
The fix was in. The real issue had been that defense lawyer Ron Koch was blocking Grover’s view of Pauline Goupil, a psychotherapist hired at the behest of Grover’s contingency lawyer who, by the time of this trial, was well into plans for a law suit against the Diocese of Manchester. I wrote of Pauline Goupil’s role in this trial in an article for the Daily Estimate, “Psychotherapists Send an Innocent Priest to Prison.”
The effect of asking his questions from far across the courtroom was that the eyes of the court, and the jury, ping-ponged between the lawyer and Grover. Most did not notice Grover’s pleading glances to Ms. Goupil and her dramatic gestures from the back of the court coaching him to cry when questions hit too close to an inconvenient truth. As the trial observer wrote to Judge Brennan:
“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 was not truthful, then I cannot help but wonder what else was not truthful on the part of Mr. Grover. If he was 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.” (Letter to retired judge Arthur Brennan, October 30, 2013)
Pauline Goupil was called under oath to the witness stand in the 1994 trial where she produced a bare bones treatment file of Thomas Grover that contained little, if any, information about claims against Father MacRae. She stated under oath that this was her entire file.
Two years later, Ms. Goupil testified in an evidentiary hearing about the law suits brought by Thomas Grover and three of his brothers against Father MacRae and the Diocese of Manchester. Under oath in that hearing, Pauline Goupil referenced an extensive file with many notations about claims against Father MacRae and about how she helped Thomas Grover to “remember” the details of his claims. In one of these two testimonies under oath – or perhaps in both – Pauline Goupil appears to have committed perjury.
In a brief, defensive hand-written reply to the above letter from the unnamed trial observer, retired Judge Brennan referred to the testimony of “young Thomas Grover” at the MacRae trial. This spoke volumes about that judge’s view of this case. The “young Thomas Grover” on the witness stand in Judge Brennan’s court was a 5’ 11” 220-lb., 27-year-old man with a criminal record of assault, forgery, drug, burglary, and theft charges. Prior to the trial, he was charged with beating his ex-wife. “He broke my nose,” she says today. The charge was dropped after MacRae’s trial. Once again, from the observer’s letter to the retired judge:
“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.” (Letter to retired Judge Brennan, October 30, 2013)
And lest we forget, the sentence of 67 years was imposed by Judge Arthur Brennan after Father MacRae three times refused a prosecution plea deal to serve only one to three years in exchange for an admission of guilt. It is one of the ironic challenges to justice in this case that had Father MacRae been actually guilty, he would have been released from prison 17 years ago.
Like others involved in this trial, Ms. Pauline Goupil was contacted by retired FBI Special Agent James Abbott who conducted an investigation of the case over the last few years. Ms. Goupil refused to be interviewed or to answer any questions.
Thomas Grover, today taking refuge on a Native American reservation in Arizona, also refused to answer questions when found by Investigator James Abbott. He reportedly did not present as someone victimized by a parish priest, but rather as someone caught in a monumental lie. “I want a lawyer!” was all he would say. We all watch TV’s “Law and Order.” We all know what “I want a lawyer” means.