False allegations, a corrupt detective, flawed judicial decisions … no wonder Father Gordon MacRae’s life has been ruined, sentenced to a 67 year jail term, after refusing a one year plea deal, wishing to maintain his innocence.
Father Gordon MacRae began writing from prison for Beyond These Stone Walls in 2009. How? “The US First Amendment allows all citizens to write and speak freely, including prisoners. So I type posts on an old typewriter in my cell and then I mail them to a volunteer editor in New York. She scans them and then runs them through software. Then she ads graphics and links and publishes every Wednesday. Given all the limitations, I can only manage one post per week.
“I have never actually even seen my blog. It began in 2009 in Sydney, after I wrote an article for the Catholic League journal for Religious and Civil Rights. So my posts would be emailed by an editor to Sydney and were published there. About four years ago it all transferred to New York.”
SYNOPSIS OF THE CASE
by Gordon MacRae
In September, 1988, Keene, NH sex crimes Detective James McLaughlin began an investigation of several Catholic priests in the Keene, NH area. After his investigation commenced, McLaughlin received a letter from Ms. Sylvia Gale (now deceased) a social worker investigating “sensitive cases” for the New Hampshire Division of Children Youth and Families (DCYF). Her letter told McLaughlin that:
“Your subject, Catholic priest Gordon MacRae is also Director of Monadnock Region Substance Abuse Services. Before that, he was a priest in Florida where he molested two boys one of whom was murdered and his body mutilated. He was then sent by the church to Berlen (sic) New Hampshire. The case is supposed to be still unsolved.” (Letter of Sylvia Gale to Det. McLaughlin, Sep. 1988).
Ms. Gale’s letter cited as her source for this story an unnamed social worker who claimed to have heard it from Monsignor John Quinn, an official of the Diocese of Manchester who allegedly demanded secrecy. Five years passed before I became aware of this letter. I had never been a priest in Florida, had never even visited Florida, and never molested, murdered or mutilated anyone. I also had never been assigned to, or lived in, Berlin, NH.
Detective McLaughlin seems to have used the claims in Sylvia Gale’s letter as a ploy to open the investigation. He proceeded to question dozens of Keene area youth and parents who had been parishioners at my assigned parish. I learned of his approaches to them in November during phone calls from shocked parishioners.
On November 16, 1988, I contacted McLaughlin in response to the phone calls I received. He requested that I meet with him. Over a period of more than four hours, some of which was tape recorded by McLaughlin, he never mentioned the letter from Sylvia Gale and it would be another five years before I learned of it. However, McLaughlin accused me of verbally soliciting 14-year-old Jon Plankey, offering him money in exchange for a sexual encounter. This never took place. McLaughlin claimed to have evidence and unnamed witnesses, and said that Plankey was receiving psychiatric care for the trauma he incurred. None of this was true.
McLaughlin said he was prepared to offer me a deal which he said was “already worked out.” The “deal” was that I plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of endangering a minor for which I would receive one year on probation and McLaughlin would keep this out of the media. I declined.
Then, for the next four hours, McLaughlin hammered away at the consequences for refusing his deal. He claimed that the matter would be handed up for a felony indictment, a certain conviction, a long prison sentence, and vast and destructive media coverage which would gravely harm the Church, my family, and many others.
When I still balked, McLaughlin turned off the tape and added that a young parishioner whose family I knew was about to be charged with a crime that would alter his life, “but this could go away if you cooperate here.” When I mentioned consulting a lawyer he said, “That will only muddy the waters, this is already worked out.” “You know what the news media will do to you,” he said. “No one will believe you and your life will be ruined.” I had never before been in a legal situation. After four hours of this, I surrendered without ever consulting legal counsel.
Because of this, my diocese sent me for a psychological evaluation at a facility for clergy in New Mexico. The assessment, which spanned a month, determined that I am not a risk for sexual offenses and concluded that the claim of solicitation, which I still deny today, was highly dubious.
I remained in New Mexico in 1988, and was eventually hired by that same facility. Over time, I became its Director of Admissions and also my faculties for ministry as a priest were restored.
One year later, in 1989, Detective McLaughlin telephoned me and added a claim that I created pornographic photographs of Jon Plankey. I protested that this was not true, but he declined to conduct any investigation. He said that this will be the basis for a lawsuit against the church. (Years later, in a 2005 interview with Dorothy Rabinowitz at The Wall Street Journal, McLaughlin admitted, “There was never any evidence of pornography.”)
In his 1989 report of the above phone conversation, which I did not see until 1994, McLaughlin wrote that he recorded the conversation and made a transcript of it. His report claimed that I said things that I had never said, including an admission of being a “hebophile,” a term I had never before seen or heard.
May 1993 — Indictments and Arrest
Four years later, in May, 1993, I was arrested in New Mexico on a warrant from New Hampshire claiming multiple felony counts of sexual assault of two brothers, Thomas and Jonathan Grover, then ages 26 and 25 respectively. The warrant claimed that I sexually assaulted them more than a decade earlier when they were ages 15 and 14. Detective McLaughlin was the sole investigator in the case.
The mother of these two accusers was Patricia Grover, a State DCYF social worker supervised by Sylvia Gale, author of the false Florida allegations. The Grovers had been questioned by McLaughlin in 1988, but denied having any claim against me.
I was released in New Mexico on personal recognizance bond to await trial in NH. In the ensuing months, I was offered three plea deals to serve a sentence of one-to-three years in exchange for a guilty plea. I declined, and then the deal was changed to one-to-two years. I declined again.
Then discovery began. For the first time, I became aware of a 72-page 1988 police report of the misdemeanor solicitation charge brought by Jon Plankey. From the report I learned that Plankey was an employee of McLaughlin “in a family owned business” at the time of the claim.
Plankey’s mother was a parking control officer for the Keene Police. Unknown to me prior to the 1988 charge against me, McLaughlin brought identical charges against two other Keene, NH residents for identical claims: solicitation for sexual encounters and the creation of child pornography. In both prior cases, Jon Plankey was the claimed “victim.” Both ended in lenient plea deals. A fourth suspect involving Plankey was never formally charged.
In the newer 1993 indictments generated by McLaughlin, Thomas and Jonathan Grover both first claimed in police reports that they were ages 12 and 10 respectively when sexually assaulted. That placed the alleged assaults in 1977, but I was not a priest in that community until 1983. In a second report, McLaughlin wrote that he provided a copy of my resume “to help them with their dates.” In the end, after multiple revisions, the charges were set in the summer of 1983 immediately upon my arrival at the Keene parish.
Jonathan Grover’s first claim was that he was fondled at age 12. He claimed that I and Rev. Stephen Scruton, another priest assigned at the Keene parish, had simultaneously fondled his genitals with our feet in a hot tub at the YMCA. His claiming to be age 12 would have dated the incident in 1981 but I was not there until 1983 and Scruton was not there until 1985.
Scruton had previously been charged by McLaughlin for an identical claim involving Todd Biltcliff, a high school classmate of Jonathan Grover for which Biltcliff obtained a financial settlement. Biltcliff claimed Scruton fondled his genitals with his foot in a hot tub at the YMCA. Eighteen months later, McLaughlin wrote an almost verbatim report about Jonathan Grover’s claims with no apparent memory of writing the same report about Scruton and Biltcliff a year earlier.
McLaughlin’s file on the case, received in discovery, contained a faxed transcript from a November 1988 Geraldo Rivera Show, “The Church’s Sexual Watergate.” It contained the following exchange between Rivera and the accuser of another Catholic priest:
Rivera: “What did the priest do to you, Greg?”
Greg Ridel: “When I was 12 years old we went to a hot tub at the YMCA and the priest fondled me with his foot in the hot tub at the YMCA. Then it escalated to other things in the house where the priests live.”
The transcript also contained a claim that the priest was “a hebophile,” a term underlined and marked in the transcript with an asterisk by some unknown person.
I was not assigned in Keene, NH until 1983 when Jonathan Grover was age 14. Stephen Scruton was never there until 1985 when Grover was age 16. Grover later added several other claims documented in the reports. He claimed to have spent overnights at the Keene rectory at age 12 and claimed he was molested by both Scruton and me acting in concert. Like other claims, none of this ever took place. (Note: Jonathan Grover died in Arizona from an accidental fentanyl overdose at age 48 in 2018.)
The above is necessary background to explain the origins of this matter, but none of it emerged at trial in September 1994.
THE 1994 TRIAL
I was never a party to any of what both Grover brothers alleged, but I was uncertain about the claims against Stephen Scruton. Several pretrial inquiries from my counsel to depose him went without response. Then my counsel sought a subpoena to compel his deposition. Scruton’s lawyer called my counsel to say that Scruton would appear without a subpoena. On the day before my trial, Scruton’s lawyer called my counsel again to say that Scruton left the state and could not be located.
My trial commenced in September 1994 without this crucial witness. The cases had been severed for trial, and the claims of 27-year-old Thomas Grover commenced first.
Pre-trial, Judge Arthur Brennan ruled that all tape recordings cited in police reports must be provided to the defense. None were provided. The prosecutor claimed that all were taped over for other investigations and were therefore unavailable. (It was only Eleven years later that McLaughlin’s 1988 recording of his interview with me was sent by him to The Wall Street Journal at the request of Dorothy Rabinowitz who wrote extensively about my case).
Thomas Grover’s testimony was simple. He said that in the summer of 1983, at age 15, he came to me for five weekly counseling sessions for his drug abuse and was violently sexually assaulted in my office at each session. When asked why he returned from week to week, he said simply: “I repressed it.”
The counseling also never took place. I saw Thomas Grover for counseling once at age 18. He had assaulted his family members while intoxicated and I had an intervention with him in the presence of his mother and other family. After that meeting, I arranged for him to be admitted to Beech Hill Hospital, a local drug treatment center. I wrote a letter to the court asking that his rehab be ordered in lieu of jail time. After two weeks at Beech Hill, Grover was discharged, accused of selling drugs to other patients.
Pretrial, Judge Arthur Brennan ordered Thomas Grover’s prior psychological treatment files to be turned over for defense review, but none were ever received. Grover testified that he had been in residential drug treatment six times. He specifically cited Beech Hill Hospital in Dublin, NH.
Leonard Fleischer, Ed.D, retained by the State as an expert witness, testified that he worked at Beech Hill Hospital and “in my experience 70% to 80% of the patients at Beech Hill Hospital had been sexually abused as children.” My attorney objected to the expert witness, but not to this specific testimony.
Nonetheless, the State conceded on direct appeal that this uncorroborated statistical testimony should not have been allowed. The appellate judges ruled that it was “harmless error.”
My counsel told me repeatedly before trial that the State would not be permitted to have an expert witness so the defense did nothing to retain one despite two professionals offering to testify in that capacity. Some jurors in post-trial interviews later cited that they were swayed solely by the State’s expert.
No evidence beyond Thomas Grover’s claims was presented by the State. During cross examination of Grover, he turned to the judge and said “I can’t answer him.” When the Judge asked why, Grover said that as long as the lawyer stands at the defense table where I was seated, he cannot answer because “I do not want to see him.” My counsel was then instructed to stand on the opposite side of the court for cross examination.
During a break following this, two observers, a husband and wife, approached my counsel. They pointed out a woman in the gallery who they said was influencing Grover’s testimony with hand gestures. She was observed running her finger from her eye down her cheek at which point Grover would sob until the judge declared a break or instructed my lawyer to “move on.” The couple said that Grover was riveted upon the woman but my counsel had been blocking Grover’s view of her. This was the real reason for his objection about where the lawyer stood for cross examination.
My counsel, Ron Koch (pronounced (“Coke”) then approached the bench. Judge Brennan cleared the jury from the court and summoned that woman to the stand. She was very flustered, but testified that her name is Pauline Goupil, an M.A. level therapist recommended by Grover’s contingency lawyer to assist him in preparing for trial. She was then barred from the court but ordered to return the next day with her treatment file for in camera review which she vehemently protested.
When the file was presented, much of its content had been removed. It contained a single letter from the therapist to Grover when he stopped showing up for her pre-trial coaching sessions. The letter stated “Good News: Jim (Detective McLaughlin) says MacRae is being offered a plea deal his lawyer will want him to take so there probably won’t be a trial. We can move on to the settlement phase.”
Grover earlier testified that he was unemployed and indigent but knew nothing of any plan to sue the church. The question of Attorney Koch that caused Grover to begin crying was “Who did you go to first with your claims: Detective McLaughlin or a lawyer?” The question was never answered because Grover began to cry. After Ms. Goupil was barred from the court, Grover was called again to explain the discrepancy in his testimony about a lawsuit. He was asked how, if indigent, he would pay Ms. Goupil for her services. He said that she and his lawyer had an arrangement “for after the settlement.”
Pretrial, McLaughlin sought a warrant for a one-party intercept to record a sting attempt in a call from Grover to me. On the day of the call, McLaughlin used an “800” number at the center where I worked. The sting attempt failed, but a phone bill received at the center (which I still have) indicated that the one-party intercept call was not placed from the Keene PD as stated in the warrant, but from the Law Office of Robert Upton, Grover’s contingency lawyer. The jury heard none of this.
Before jury deliberations in the trial, Judge Arthur Brennan instructed the jury to “disregard inconsistencies in Mr. Grover’s testimony.” (This is referenced in the attached 1994 media report). I was later sentenced to consecutive terms for a total of 33.5 to 67 years. Post-trial, Grover received about $200,000 in settlement from the Diocese of Manchester.
POST TRIAL INVESTIGATION
In 2005, and again in 2013, Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote extensively about this trial and McLaughlin’s role in a series of three articles in The Wall Street Journal. In 2008, a former F.B.I. investigator began a three year investigation. He uncovered family members of Thomas Grover and several other witnesses whose potential testimony was unknown at the time of trial, including:
- Trina Ghedoni and Charlie Glenn: Thomas Grover’s former wife and stepson provided signed statements that Grover repeatedly told them he was “getting one over on the Catholic Church” and admitted that he was never molested at all.
- Grover’s former wife reported that during trial she confronted him about a crucial part of his testimony that she knew to be false. She said he hit her and broke her nose. She added that Grover was heavily coached before trial by McLaughlin and Pauline Goupil.
- Steven Wollschlager, an accuser and friend of Thomas Grover, recanted an earlier accusation telling the former FBI agent that McLaughlin paid him $50 to concoct an accusation for the grand jury. Wollschlager wrote, “He had me believing that all I had to do was make up a story about MacRae and I would receive a large amount of money like others had done.”
- Wollschlager signed a statement quoting McLaughlin who referred to Wollschlager’s girlfriend and child saying, “Life could go easier for you and them with a lot of money.” After receiving a subpoena to appear before the grand jury for a new indictment, Wollschlager “thought better of it.” He said he was told that “we won’t be needing anything further from you.”
- Debra Collett was Grover’s former therapist in a drug treatment center. Documented in police reports, Grover claimed that he told Ms. Collett that I repeatedly molested him. My attorney found Ms. Collett and sought a court order to interview her. Then suddenly she appeared on a list of prosecution witnesses. Her testimony was bizarre. She broke down with emotional outbursts and Judge Brennan cleared the court. The judge then discharged her as a witness. In a post-trial statement to former FBI investigator Jim Abbott, Debra Collett wrote that after she agreed to be a defense witness, Detective McLaughlin showed up at her home. He threatened her with arrest if she did not cooperate as a prosecution witness. She wrote in her signed statement that she told McLaughlin that Thomas Grover never accused me during therapy sessions with her. She wrote that he accused so many people — including his adoptive father — that she and her staff “thought he was going for some sort of sex abuse world record, but he never accused MacRae.” She said that McLaughlin turned off his tape recorder and threatened her into altering her testimony. The defense was never informed of that recording and nothing about this appeared in discovery.
- In a 2012 failed Petition for Habeas Corpus, none of these newly discovered witnesses were permitted to testify.
HE WOULD SAY THAT …. AS DOES RABINOWITZ
Dorothy Rabinowitz is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. She has followed Father MacRea’s case for years. In May 2013, for example, she published an article from which the following extracts seem relevant:
Sentenced to 33½-67 years following his 1994 conviction for sexual assault against a teenage male, Father MacRae has just turned 60.
The path that led inexorably to that conviction would have been familiar to witnesses of the manufactured sex-abuse prosecutions that swept the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s and left an extraordinary number of ruined lives in its wake.
Here once more, in the MacRae case, was a set of charges built by a determined sex-abuse investigator and an atmosphere in which accusation was, in effect, all the proof required to bring a guilty verdict. But now there was another factor: huge financial payouts for victims’ claims. That a great many of the accusations against the priests were amply documented, that they involved the crimes of true predators all too often hidden or ignored, no one can doubt.
Neither should anyone doubt the ripe opportunities there were for fraudulent abuse claims filed in the hope of a large payoff. Busy civil attorneys—working on behalf of clients suddenly alive to the possibilities of a molestation claim, or open to suggestions that they remembered having been molested—could and did reap handsome rewards for themselves and their clients. The Diocese of Manchester, where Father MacRae had served, had by 2004 paid out $22,210,400 in settlements to those who had accused its priests of abuse.
Along with the lure of financial settlements, the MacRae case was driven by that other potent force—the fevered atmosphere in which charges were built, the presumption of innocence buried. An atmosphere in which it was unthinkable—it still is today—not to credit as truthful every accuser charging a Catholic priest with molestation. There is no clearer testament to the times than the public statement in September 1993 issued by Father MacRae’s own diocese in Manchester well before the trial began: “The Church is a victim of the actions of Gordon MacRae as well as the individuals.” Diocesan officials had evidently found it inconvenient to dally while due process took its course.
FOOTNOTE: Rabinowitz received the 1997 Champion of Justice Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in recognition of her journalistic achievements and commending her in particular for her writing on false sexual abuse charges. In 1993 she won the Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in the commentary category.