Some who today cite a coerced post-trial plea deal to evidence Fr Gordon MacRae’s guilt actually had a hand in bringing it about. Plea deals can destroy justice.
Editor’s Note: This continues an ongoing series of TSW guest posts by Ryan A. MacDonald. Part One was “The Trial of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Fraud.” Part Two was “The Prison of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Silence.”
My first installment in this series of occasional guest articles on the story of Father Gordon MacRae was “The Trial of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Fraud” posted here in February. I have since learned that after it was published, These Stone Walls received a couple of unposted comments that could be construed as death threats. Both were from the same person using fake identities, and contained the same overtly threatening language, “Kill the priest, kill the priest, kill the priest!” They were posted by a man with an IP address in Eastern Massachusetts.
The man who posted them happens to be known to me, but he has been unaware of that fact until now. This man has tried to post other comments using fake names both on These Stone Walls and at other venues when commenters mention the case of Father Gordon MacRae. He seems to take very personally these efforts to uncover and publish the truth of this matter though he has no direct involvement in this story, and he has never even met Father MacRae. He appears to be highly motivated, however, to bury the truth of this case under the usual toxic rhetoric and hysteria that plague the subject of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse, and prevent constructive, rational investigation.
Like many members of SNAP, that writer does not post a lot of comments so much as he posts the same comment over and over again in any venue that will accept it. In the case of Father Gordon MacRae, this Toxic Avenger’s favorite comment is that MacRae “has publicly admitted to molesting children!” The claim is by no means new, but like so much of this case it has become part of a public mantra, a snowball that grew ever bigger as it rolled downhill. It is but the latest chapter in this perversion of justice. I want to thank our Massachusetts friend for raising it again and spreading it around until finally I was moved to take it up.
THOMAS GROVER AND HIS BROTHERS
In her third major article on this story in The Wall Street Journal, “The Trials of Father MacRae,” (May 10, 2013), Dorothy Rabinowitz devoted a few lines to the subject of plea deals offered to the accused priest before and during his trial:
“In mid-trial, the state was moved to offer Father MacRae an enticing plea deal: one to three years for an admission of guilt. The priest refused it, as he had turned down two previous offers, insisting on his innocence.”
The previous offers were put into writing in the prosecutor’s pre-trial letters to MacRae’s attorney. In the pre-trial media coverage, state prosecutors trumpeted the multiple accusers – there were four, three of them brothers in the same family – and multiple indictments against this priest, all claims that arose at the same time from over a decade earlier. I described these claims in a post aptly titled, “In Fr Gordon MacRae Case, Whack-A-Mole Justice Holds Court.”
While publicly presenting the priest as a monster in the local New Hampshire news media, state prosecutors moved quietly behind the scenes to offer MacRae a deal to plead guilty and then get on with his life in just one year. Defense lawyers talked up the deal. It would save lots of time and money, and might even save Father MacRae who, it seemed to them, did not actually do any of this. The priest refused it twice before trial and again in the middle of trial just after Thomas Grover’s incredible testimony.
In my post that began this series, “The Trial of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Fraud,” I described Thomas Grover’s testimony at trial – testimony that was heavily coached to the point of witness tampering. Pauline Goupil, a psychotherapist retained at the behest of Grover’s contingency lawyer, was observed coaching Grover’s testimony with what appeared to be prearranged signals to cry when tough questions were asked. Her scant “treatment” filed contained a copy of a pre-trial letter from Ms. Goupil to Grover never seen by the jury:
“Jim [that’s Keene, NH detective James McLaughlin} told me MacRae is being offered a deal his lawyers will want him to take. So there won’t be a trial. We can just move on to the settlement.”
There seemed to be a sort of bewilderment among prosecutors as to why the priest would not accept their deal. During a short recess, prosecutors pulled defense Attorney Ron Koch aside, then he in turn pulled his client into a hallway.
“They want to know why we won’t take their deal,” he told Father MacRae. “They want us to make a counter offer. They want this conviction. They don’t necessarily want you,” the lawyer said. MacRae says, today, that he just couldn’t go along, that it was never a matter of “throwing his life away” as his lawyers described his insistence on a trial. It was the fact that avoiding trial by taking a plea deal meant that none of the details of this case would ever come out. He would just be another guilty priest who vaguely assaulted claimants who were then given huge settlements by the Catholic Church. It was the story widely told up to then, and since then, but in this case it was not the truth.
When MacRae refused that third plea deal offer following Thomas Grover’s testimony, however, the tone of this trial changed. On cross examination, Attorney Koch asked Grover a simple question: “Who did you go to first with this story, the police, or a lawyer?” As he did so often in this trial when cornered with a question that might unmask him, 27-year-old Thomas Grover (of whom Judge Brennan referred throughout trial as “the victim”) looked bewildered, rattled on incoherently, meandered down meaningless, unresponsive side roads, then looked to Ms. Pauline Goupil for the signal that it was time to start crying. In a related article, Psychotherapists Help Send an Innocent Priest to Prison,” I wrote the story behind Grover’s sobbing performance on the witness stand.
The question of who Thomas Grover went to first with his story – the police or his contingency lawyer – went to the very heart of this case and the motive for bringing it: an expectation of a financial settlement from the Diocese of Manchester. To date, the question of who he went to first has never been answered.
The next morning in that courtroom, Judge Arthur Brennan took it upon himself to remedy the situation. Outside the presence of the jury, he instructed all present that he had given Thomas Grover a limiting order barring him from any testimony about the simultaneous claims of abuse brought by two of his brothers, one two years older and one a year younger. Judge Brennan’s remedy was to summon the jury and instruct them – with no explanation whatsoever – that they are to disregard inconsistencies in Thomas Grover’s testimony. As Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote, that jury “had much to disregard.”
Then, when an opportunity approached for the accused priest to take the stand in his own defense, Judge Brennan once again dismissed the jury and addressed the priest directly. He said that if MacRae chooses to testify in his own defense, he will almost certainly open the door to permit the claims of Thomas Grover’s brothers to come before the jury, and thereby become – as bizarre as their stories were – corroborating evidence for each other. In other words, one lie standing alone has a chance to be undone. Three lies standing together left the defense defenseless. So, in the entirety of this trial and sentencing, Father Gordon MacRae was never permitted to utter a single word.
THE MARBLE CHESS SET
On direct and on cross examination, Thomas Grover testified that during the 1983 sexual assaults he endured in Father MacRae’s rectory office, Grover saw a large elaborate marble chess set on a table in that office. I described this office, including a set of exterior photographs, in a post on my own blog entitled “Justice and a Priest’s Right of Defense in the Diocese of Manchester.” I am convinced that there are people from Keene, NH who read that – Father MacRae’s jurors, perhaps, and others who know the truth of this story – but they stay in the shadows.
At the trial, “ Moe” Father Rochefort testified that he and MacRae and three other friends purchased that marble chess set during a hiking and camping vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine in 1986. So it was not possible that Grover saw that chess set in 1983. Today, Thomas Grover’s ex-wife, Trina Ghedoni, reports that Grover admitted to her at the time that he committed perjury in his testimony about the chess set, “but it was what they wanted him to say.” When asked who “they” referred to, Ms. Ghedoni replied, “Pauline Goupil and Detective [James] McLaughlin.”
Late in the last full day of the trial, Defense lawyer Ron Koch, now deceased, delivered his closing argument to the jury and then left the court to fly off for a murder trial. He was not present in the courtroom when Prosecutor Bruce Reynolds told the MacRae jury that “some people in this court said MacRae was a nice guy. People said that of Hitler too.”
The trial ended and the jury began deliberations late in the afternoon of Thursday, September 22, 1994. Presumably, that first hour was used to select a jury foreman, then they all went home. The next day, Friday, September 23, 1994, the jury returned at 9:30 AM to ask a question of Judge Brennan. They wanted to see a transcript of Father Rochefort’s testimony about the marble chess set. Judge Brennan denied the jury request, telling them that they must rely solely on their memories of that testimony.
One hour later, MacRae was summoned back into the courtroom. The jury had reached a verdict in spite of their unanswered question. MacRae stood to hear the twelve jurors’ finding of “guilty.” He says, today, that not one would look at him directly. They looked only at Judge Brennan.
THE SENTENCE AND THE EXTORTION
Knowing about the proffered and refused plea deals – or at least having no excuse NOT to know of them – Judge Arthur Brennan would eventually sentence Gordon MacRae to more than thirty times the minimum sentence of one year which the State was willing to recommend had MacRae allowed the entire case to be piled into one convenient plea deal. I wrote about the refused deal of one to three years and the imposed term of 67 years in “Judge Arthur Brennan Sentenced Fr Gordon MacRae to Die in Prison.”
That article raised an important question about justice. How is it that the man who stood before Judge Brennan was more of a monster for maintaining his innocence and preserving his rights than he was had he admitted guilt? If MacRae had in fact been guilty, and therefore willing to say as much, he would have left prison over 17 years ago.
When this trial was over, Father MacRae was taken immediately to a jail cell to await Judge Brennan’s sentence. Defense lawyer Ron Koch resigned from the case telling the priest via telephone that the verdict “did not reflect anything that took place in that courtroom.”
In “The Prison of Father MacRae: A Conspiracy of Silence,” my second installment in this series, I wrote that MacRae took and passed a set of polygraph examinations in the claims brought by Thomas Grover and his brothers, Jonathan Grover and David Grover. None of the three have ever agreed to submit to polygraphs. I wrote that a defense decision to reveal the polygraph results to the Diocese of Manchester before trial was disastrous.
The result was a glaring, highly prejudicial, and explosive pre-trial press release that publicly declared Father MacRae to be guilty before jury selection in his trial. The Bishop of Manchester’s press release so prejudiced this case that it was a major factor in defense attorney Ron Koch’s decision to resign.
Attorney Koch was simply bewildered at the willingness of Church officials to enter into settlement negotiations with accusers regardless of the truth, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused. Dorothy Rabinowitz put it somewhat more delicately, “Diocesan officials had evidently found it inconvenient to dally while due process took its course.”
This appears to be what The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus meant in “A Kafkaesque Tale” when he wrote that the MacRae case “reflects a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice.” Exiting the case, Attorney Koch told the convicted and jailed priest that subsequent trials would have to be turned over to a public defender, and that MacRae had no hope of prevailing. None. Zero. He warned the priest that there was hope of overturning the Thomas Grover case on appeal, but that he could not possibly hope to ever leave prison if he is convicted in another trial of claims brought by Thomas Grover’s brothers and then two others who jumped aboard. (That’s a whole other story, and it’s coming!)
THE NEGOTIATED LIE
State prosecutors knew all this, but those behind this case also knew that certain facts in the background risked also becoming public in future trials. So a new deal was set forth. The priest, still awaiting Judge Brennan’s sentence in the Thomas Grover trial, was offered a sentence of zero years in prison if he would forego additional trials and plead guilty to only the remaining charges. The details of those remaining charges are laid out in an article of mine entitled, “Truth in Justice: Was the Wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?”
It’s cheap and easy to say today that Father MacRae should not have accepted this deal, but that does not capture the reality of it. Everyone around him at the time told him that he had no choice. The State’s prosecutorial machine and the Diocese of Manchester’s press release combined to utterly destroy this man, his due process rights, and his freedom. Under their combined, unbearable weight – alone, impoverished by the previous trial, abandoned by his legal counsel, vilified by his own bishop and diocese, siting in jail awaiting sentence – Gordon MacRae was undone as this final negotiated lie was thrust upon him. There were many owners of this lie. It was not MacRae’s alone. Seventeen years later, Joan Frawley Desmond, Senior Editor at the National Catholic Register newspaper, took on a subject anathema to most in the secular and Catholic press: the idea that some accused priests might be innocent. In “Priests in Limbo,” the second of a two-part article in the NC Register (Feb. 15, 2011) Joan Frawley Desmond wrote of the story of Father Gordon MacRae:
“The Diocese of Manchester doesn’t share [Ms.] Rabinowitz’s belief in the priest’s innocence. ‘Father MacRae pleaded guilty to felonious sexual assault,’ stated diocesan spokesman Kevin Donovan. Rabinowitz offered an exculpatory back story to Father MacRae’s guilty plea . . . Donovan would also not address Rabinowitz’s charge that the Manchester Diocese issued a pre-trial statement that lent credence to the abuse allegations.”
That officials of the Diocese of Manchester would today cite as evidence of guilt the very scenario that they themselves had a hand in creating is one of the bombshells yet to be fully defused in this case. Those very words, that MacRae “admitted” to some charges, were packaged by Monsignor Edward Arsenault – himself now in prison after a recent plea deal – and sent to Rome in an effort to have MacRae forcibly dismissed from the priesthood, an effort that, thankfully, has not yet succeeded.
Such perversions of justice are by no means limited to this one case. The Innocence Project reveals that of the more than 800 proven wrongful convictions in the United States in recent years, a full twenty-five percent had buckled under coerced pre-trial plea deals. Ninety-five percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining, and it is no measure of justice.
I am far more persuaded by the sworn statement of career FBI Special Agent Supervisor, James Abbott, who concluded,
“During the entirety of my three-year investigation of this matter, I discovered no evidence of MacRae having committed the crimes charged, or any other crimes.”
There is more to come, and it’s coming. Meanwhile, if you ever again read somewhere that Father Gordon MacRae “admitted guilt,” please set the record straight and leave a link to this post. He didn’t. Not by any standard of truth and justice I know of.