Criminal Defense Attorney, Vincent James Sanzone, explains why the case of Father Gordon MacRae has been no measure of justice for either Church or State.
The unjust imprisonment and suffering of Catholic priests at the hands of communist, fascist and other evil despots has and will unfortunately never end. And let’s not forget that Jesus Christ himself told his apostles that the world will hate them as they hated him. Christ was falsely accused and condemned because one man, Pontius Pilate, like most of us, did not have the courage to stand up against the hysterical crowd which did not know, or want to know the truth. As our Lord taught, “The Son of Man came … not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:28)
When such persecutions occur there is little if anything that the Church can do. Could even our Holy Father, Pope Francis do anything to stop the daily killing of Christians throughout the world today?
Such unjust punishments are not limited to these regimes, and one such travesty of injustice which has been occurring for the last 21-years right here in the United States is the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of Father Gordon MacRae. In 1994 this young and dedicated priest was sentenced by a New Hampshire state judge to the draconian sentence of 33 ½ to 67 years, effectively a life sentence. Because Father MacRae refused to admit to a crime which he did not commit so as to take a plea offer before trial, nor will he do so now, he will not be paroled from prison, and is likely to die in jail.
Any reasonable person examining the trial with any degree of fairness cannot come to the conclusion that the prosecution and continuing imprisonment of Father Gordon is not only a tragedy for this good and holy priest, for all clergy and the faithful, but is also a blight on our criminal justice system. The machine of the criminal justice system of the State of New Hampshire is not attempting to re-examine this case and rectify it.
It is without dispute that our society in general is quick to condemn someone accused of committing a crime, especially when there is an allegation of a sexual crime, and more so when the accuser claims involvement of a Catholic priest. Even one with the most conservative law enforcement mindset would deny that for the last 25 years the deck has been stacked against any priest charged with a sexual offense, and that it is almost impossible for a Catholic priest to be processed fairly by jury and judge.
At the time of Father Gordon’s prosecution there was a climate of media fueled national hysteria regarding any allegation of sexual offenses on anyone under 18 years of age, whether true or false, especially if a Catholic priest was purportedly involved. Such a climate almost entirely preempted juries from fairly applying the reasonable doubt standard, as they were and are prone to believe any allegation of sexual misconduct no matter how bizarre. Many legal scholars have examined the hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s, and equate this period to the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century. The prosecution of Father MacRae was also fueled by sensationalistic media hype with little concern for civil liberties and the presumption of innocence. As one court put it at that time:
“[A] series of highly questionable child sex abuse prosecutions … were fueled by a vast moral panic … a period in which allegations of outrageously bizarre and often ritualistic child abuse spread like wildfire across the country and garnered world-wide media attention.” “[T]remendous emotion [was] generated by the public” as a result of which “the criminal process often fail[ed]….”Friedman v. Rehal”, 618 F.3d 142, 155, 158 (2 Cir. 2010).
The genesis of the criminal prosecution of Father Gordon is no different than what is to be found in most other wrongful convictions. The convergence of factors in this case was a perfect storm for this wrongful conviction. In the wake of these factors, Father Gordon had zero chance of receiving a fair trial and being acquitted of the false charges at trial. As a practicing criminal defense attorney involved in many such cases over the last 25 years, any defendant charged with such a crime must actually attempt to prove his or her innocence. The jury has a sacred duty when charged with deliberating a criminal case: they are to respect that the defendant is innocent and has no burden to prove that innocence, with the burden of proving guilt beyond any reasonable doubt belonging to the prosecution. All of this is often ignored by juries.
In Father Gordon’s case, the evidence is overwhelming that false criminal allegations were brought by a manipulative man with a financial motive to lie. The accuser was trained and coached during the entire process by his attorney, who was seeking a large payout from the diocese of Manchester. The accuser had a long history of alcohol and drug abuse and involvement in the criminal justice system as well as a long history of opportunistic and manipulative lying. Years after the verdict, it was discovered that he bragged to friends and family members how he manipulated the justice system and the diocese. The entire prosecution of Father MacRae hinged upon the inconsistent, contradictory, and incredulous testimony of this one accuser. Father Gordon’s only “crime” had been to try to help this young man who had no family support and was heading down the path to destruction.
In the early 1990s it was common knowledge in New Hampshire that the Diocese of Manchester, as other dioceses in the United States, was paying huge sums of money to anyone claiming to have been abused by a priest. The Diocese was making these payments while conducting little or no investigation to determine the validity of the claims. It was a windfall for predatory personal injury attorneys making money off the backs of faithful parishioners, and a dream come true for scammers and fraudsters looking to cash in. Such was Thomas Grover, a foster child of the Grover family, which sought the help of Father Gordon to counsel and help Thomas. His foster parents struggled with their son’s alcohol and drug abuse, as well as with his mental health problems and frequent run-ins with the law. Years later, when Thomas Grover became aware of the large amounts of money that the Diocese was paying out to accusers, saw his opportunity to make a large amount of money. This was the way he “thanked” Father Gordon for all that he had done for him, weaving a string of lies impossible to refute.
There not being a single witness except Grover himself, which makes his story absurd, since he claimed that he was assaulted by Father Gordon in very public areas. Yet, Manchester Diocese paid him nearly $200,000.00.
Based on legal papers submitted in federal court, credible witnesses have now been located and have come forward, willing to testify that Grover admitted committing perjury at trial, and bragged about how he scammed the diocese and the justice system. Grover’s former wife and stepson have admitted that he was a “compulsive liar”, “manipulator”, “drama queen” and “hustler” who had a long history of lying to get what he wanted. When confronted with his lies, he “would lose his temper”, and would then admit himself into the psychiatric unit at Elliot Hospital. While seeking “help”, he would accuse others of molesting him. He accused other clergyman as well as his foster father and baby sitters when he was a child. In addition to his psychological state and alcohol and drug addition, he had an extensive criminal history prior to making his false allegations against Father Gordon. Grover was arrested and convicted for two burglaries, two forgeries, two thefts, theft by deception, assault on a police officer, and aggravated assault on his former wife when he broke her nose during one of many such beatings. His former wife considered him to be a sexual predator, and never left her two daughters from another relationship alone with him while they were living together, as he would eye and grope them.
In April of 2005, the lead detective James McLaughlin was confronted with these sobering facts about Grover in The Wall Street Journal articles by Dorothy Rabinowitz about the unjust conviction of Father Gordon (A Priest’s Story: Part I; A Priest’s Story: Part II). In response to his botched and incompetent investigation, McLaughlin made himself a self-appointed psychologist and responded remarkably by saying: “So we had all these elevated activities with our male victims, so in a sense, when you have a victim present that has this baggage, it’s corroborative of their victimization” (“Story of Jailed Priest Retold”, The Union Leader: Manchester NH, April 28, 2005).
At trial, Grover lied and told the jury that he needed money from his lawsuit with the Diocese for therapy because of the “abuse.” However, after his $200,000.00 payout, and after the trial was over, Grover did not attend one therapy session but took his former wife to Arizona, where he blew it all on alcohol, drugs, cars, pornography and gambling. In fact on that trip he lost about $70,000.00 on a Las Vegas gambling junket. In addition, he stiffed the casino another $50.000.00 on a credit line which he fraudulently applied for by providing false information about his job and income. A collection action initiated by the casino was unsuccessful. His wife finally left him in 1998 when the money was gone, and Grover was caught in bed with his biological sister.
Grover’s testimony at trial did not border on the absurd; it was absurd. His shifty testimony was fantastic, nonsensical and contradictory. When he was spoon-fed by the direct questioning of the prosecutor, he was able recite his rehearsed testimony. However, on cross-examination it was far different. Every time he was trapped in a lie or inconsistent statement he fell back on his rehearsed line, saying that question “overloads my mind and… leaves me more or less in shock for days after…”
When Grover was confronted as to why he did not report the abuse for 10 years he claimed that he repressed the abuse, and it was “difficult to talk [about it] in front of people” until he spoke to his attorneys.
The fundamental question must be asked about our justice system; how could any reasonable jury, having the sworn duty to acquit Father Gordon unless the prosecution proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, find him guilty under this type of incredulous testimony? The State had the burden of proof. How could they have gotten it so wrong? Before a jury could find him guilty they would have to have found Grover’s testimony completely credible. Under our criminal justice system no competent and reasonable jury should have found this type of testimony sufficient to convict a Catholic Priest who, previous to these series of false allegations, had never been convicted of anything but a traffic moving violation.
Not unlike other unjust convictions, the law enforcement investigation of Father Gordon was both overzealous and intentionally unfair. The lead detective, James McLaughlin, was not interested in a fair and impartial investigation, but only in creating and spinning the facts to support his – and eventually the prosecution’s – theory of the case. McLaughlin also suppressed any facts which clearly pointed out that Father Gordon was innocent of the false allegations made by the accuser. McLaughlin engaged in investigating this matter in a way that was patently unfair and used his power as a law enforcement officer to suppress witnesses who were willing to testify for Father Gordon.
To make matters worse, Father Gordon’s bishop at the time of his trial did not support Father Gordon, but in fact allowed his office to issue a press release prior to trial which literally condemned Father Gordon. This misstatement by the bishop helped fuel media hysteria, and it unquestionably tainted the potential jury pool, insuring the prosecution of a conviction. The bishop did not stand up for one of his priest’s with courage, but rather retreated to bureaucratic-clericalism, more worried about pleasing his lawyers, insurance carrier and insulting the diocese from potential civil liability. This abandonment by the diocese has continued 21 years. The bishop’s technique accomplished nothing because the diocese paid out monetary awards to Father Gordon accuser. The greater cost, of course, was the loss of any trust of the priests of the diocese for the bishop and chancery. Not only was Father Gordon not able to count on his bishop for support, but the bishop negligently or intentionally acted in such a way as to let the public be given the message that Father Gordon was guilty. The bishop needs to answer questions about sacrificing priests on the altar of insurance considerations. To date it is conservatively estimated that the Church in the United States has paid 2.5 billion in claims because of the sexual abuse scandal. How many of these claims were outright false can only be guessed. In any case, the bishop distanced himself from Father MacRae and left him on his own.
If the cards were not already stacked against Father Gordon, his defense attorney at trial was no help. Father Gordon was represented by Ron Koch, an attorney from New Mexico, who died in the year 2000 at the age of 49. Although this attorney did his best to defend Father Gordon, he nevertheless made critical trial errors which hurt Father Gordon’s defense and opened the door for the prosecutor to introduce prejudicial evidence which the trial judge had already ruled was inadmissible and not relevant. Mr. Koch was forced to split his time between his active criminal practice in New Mexico and preparing for Father’s Gordon’s trial, which Mr. Koch was unable to do. Mr. Koch failed to conduct important pretrial discovery and inadequately prepared the case for trial. Father Gordon trial counsel was unprepared and out matched, and therefore constitutionally ineffective. Father Gordon’s constitutional rights to procedural due process and a fair trial were eviscerated. Mr. Koch failed to interview and subpoena critical witnesses for the defense, failed to go to the scene in which Grover alleged that he had been touched, and lastly, failed to preserve attorney-client privileged documents which Koch turned over to the prosecution.
Many people unfamiliar with the criminal justice system in the United States believe that the criminal justice system eventually corrects an unjust conviction. This sadly is the exception and not the rule. Under our judicial system the jury verdict is final, and most appeals, regardless as to the justice of the verdict are denied. Father Gordon is going on 22 years of imprisonment. Every appeal has been rejected, every judge hearing his case has turned his back on his pleas for justice. On March 17, 2015, a federal district court judge who many had high hopes would grant Father MacRae’s writ of habeas corpus, instead, granted the State of New Hampshire’s motion to dismiss on the pleadings. The judge did not even grant Father Gordon an evidential hearing. Father’s Gordon appeal to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals is tenuous at best. Aside from a miracle or pardon from the Governor of New Hampshire or the President of the United States, it is most likely that Father Gordon will die a martyr’s death in prison, or if lucky, be released a very old man.
The Catholic Church cannot proclaim the fullness of the truth without its priests. Every priest has been called by God for this mission. The Church has no alternative but to pursue and fight for authentic justice, and it must start with Father Gordon. No pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, or anyone among the laity can sit by and permit this injustice to continue. Diabolic advocacy and persecution of the Church has and will continue. Satan knows his enemy, and his enemy is the Holy Roman Catholic Church, in particular its clergy. Satan’s relentless pursuit is against the only institutional defender of natural law and of life in the world, from the moment of conception to natural death, the Catholic Church.
St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, understood this all too well. He was also subjected to outrageous lies about his character when he made this profound statement over 150 years ago: “When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest, there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice, there is no religion.”
At the end of our brief temporal life all of us will be judged for what we “did and failed to do”; did we all do what is right and just?
Vincent James Sanzone, Jr., Esq., loves his Catholic faith, and has been a practicing criminal defense attorney in New Jersey for the last 25 years. Attorney Sanzone is a member of the New Jersey Bar Association, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, and of the Legal Center for Defense of Life. He is admitted to the bar in the State of New Jersey and the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey as well as Federal Appeals Courts for the Third and Fourth Circuits. In addition, he has been admitted to practice pro hac vice in the Southern District of New York, and in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Attorney Sanzone has argued successfully before the New Jersey Supreme Court, and has tried hundreds of criminal trials. Many of his clients were minority young men and women whom were acquitted of all charges at trial and went on to live exemplary lives.