THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 27, 2005
Not all accounts of sex abuse in the Catholic Church turn out to be true.
A Priest's Story
By DOROTHY RABINOWITZ
April 27, 2005; Page A14
Nine years after he had been convicted and sent to prison on charges of sexual
assault against a teenaged boy, Father Gordon MacRae received a letter in July
2003 from Nixon Peabody LLP. law film representing the Diocese of Manchester,
N.H. Under the circumstances -- he was a priest serving a life term -- and after
all he had seen, the cordial-sounding inquiry should not perhaps have chilled
him as much as it did.
". . . an individual named Brett McKenzie has brought a claim against the
Diocese of Manchester seeking a financial settlement as a result of alleged
conduct by you," the letter informed him. There was a limited window of
opportunity for an agreement that would release him and the Diocese from
liability. He should understand, the lawyer added, that this request didn't
require Fr. MacRae to acknowledge in any way what Mr. McKenzie had alleged.
"Rather, I simply need to know whether you would object to a settlement
Fr. MacRae promptly fired a letter off, through his lawyer, declaring he had no
idea who Mr. McKenzie was, had never met him, and he was confounded by the
request that he assent to any such payment. Neither he nor his lawyers ever
received any response. Fr. MacRae had little doubt that the stranger -- like
others who had emerged, long after trial, with allegations and attorneys, and,
frequently, just-recovered memories of abuse -- got his settlement.
By the time he was taken off to prison in 1994, payouts for such claims against
priests promised to surpass the rosiest dreams of civil attorneys. The promise
was duly realized: In 2003, the Boston Archdiocese paid $85 million for some 54
claimants. The Portland, Ore., Archdiocese, which had already handed over some
$53 million, declared bankruptcy in 2004, when confronted with $155 million in
new claims. Those of Tucson and Spokane soon did the same.
Fr. MacRae's own Diocese of Manchester had the distinction, in 2002, of being
the first to be threatened with criminal charges. According to the New Hampshire
Attorney General's office, the state was prepared to seek indictments on charges
of child endangerment. To avert prosecution, the diocese signed an agreement
much publicized by the AG's office, acknowledging that it was likely that the
state could obtain a conviction. (Attorneys familiar with the issue had their
doubts about that.) Meanwhile, claims and payments continued apace. By the end
of 2004, the Diocese audit showed a total of $22,210,400 -- thus far -- in
That the scandals which began reaching flood tide in the late '90s had to do
with charges all too amply documented, and that involved true predators, no one
would dispute. Nor can there be much doubt that those scandals, their non-stop
press coverage, and the irresistible pressure on the Church to show proof of
cleansing resulted in a system that rewarded false claims along with the true.
An expensive arrangement, that -- in more ways than one.
* * *
No one would be more aware of that than Gordon MacRae, whose infuriated response
to the Nixon Peabody attorney included reference to "the settlement game." He
didn't trouble to mention the cost the game had exacted in his case. For the
last few years, he has shared a seven-and-a-half by 14 foot cell with one other
inmate at the New Hampshire State Penitentiary. For this, he is thankful as only
a prisoner can be who had had the experience of being housed, his first five
years in prison, with eight men in a cell built for four. Every inmate ever
placed in such a cell lives in fear of having to return and he is no exception,
he notes. Still it had been easier on him than some around him.
"I had an interior life -- others had less."
At St. Bernard Parish in New Hampshire, the patient, energetic young Fr. MacRae
was the one chosen for work with troubled teenagers, invariably assigned to drug
addiction centers. Through it all he remained oblivious to snares that might lie
in the path of a priest for the young and needy. He was soon to be educated.
In the spring of 1983, 14-year-old Lawrence Carnevale cried bitterly upon
learning that Fr. Gordon, whom he adored, was to move to another parish, and
threw himself onto the priest's lap. He made phone calls to Fr. Gordon at his
new parish. Within a few months, the youth told his psychotherapist that Fr.
Gordon had kissed him. Three years later -- expelled from his Catholic High
School for carrying a weapon -- he told a counselor that the priest had fondled
him and run his hands up his leg. At roughly the same time, he accused a male
teacher at St. Thomas High School of making advances to him, then made the same
allegation against his study hall teacher at Winnacunnet High School. Police
Detective Arthur Wardell, who investigated, concluded in his report that this
was a young man who basked in the attention such charges brought him, and that
there was no basis to them.
Lawrence Carnevale nonetheless had more revelations of abuse a decade later. In
1993, he alleged that Fr. MacRae had held a gun on him, and had forced him to
masturbate while licking the barrel. Clearly, his narrative of trauma had
undergone extraordinary transformation. Prosecutors and their experts invariably
explain such dazzling enrichment in the charges as being the result of an
accuser's newfound courage. They would have occasion to make numerous
explanations of this kind throughout Fr. MacRae's trial. Though Lawrence
Carnevale's own case would not come before a court, his charges would play their
role in bolstering a 1994 criminal case brought against the priest. He would
have the satisfaction, as well, of hearing the presiding judge cite the torment
and lifelong pain Lawrence Carnevale had suffered at the hands of Fr. MacRae.
A decade earlier, his stories had also had their effect on Fr. MacRae, who was
unnerved by them, depressed by the suspicions they raised. He had no idea of the
disturbances yet to come. In 1988, 17-year-old Michael Rossi, a patient at the
Spofford Chemical Dependency Hospital, asked to meet with him. Not long into
their talk, which was supposed to be about his addiction, the man became
agitated, exposed himself, and began telling him about his other sexual
encounters at the hospital. Fr. MacRae walked quickly away, his memories of the
Carnevale accusations still fresh, and declared he was about to open the door --
a threat that chastened the patient enough to zip up. Before walking away,
though, he had a final, warning query for the priest: "This was confession,
Gordon MacRae now recalls the words with some wryness, though at the time he was
far from sanguine. He discussed the incident with his superiors, along with his
fears about having to disclose, to police, details of an encounter the Spofford
patient had declared a "confession." Msgr. Frank Christian offered reassurances.
Fr. MacRae was suspended nevertheless, pending an investigation. Two months
later, state police who conducted an investigation declared the case unfounded
and closed it -- which did little to keep the Spofford incident from feeding the
suspicions of Detective James McLaughlin, sex crimes investigator for the Keene
police department, then just beginning what was to become a considerable career
in his field, particularly for his stings involving child molesters.
Other factors, too, had played their role in focusing his attention on the
priest, not least a letter sent by a Catholic Youth Services social worker after
the Spofford Hospital incident. The letter informed the investigator of
authoritative information the worker had received that Fr. MacRae was a suspect
in the murder and sex-mutilation of a Florida boy. It was a while before word
from Florida police, revealing the story as bogus, caught up with the social
workers and police in Keene. Meanwhile, Detective McLaughlin was busy
interrogating some 22 teenage boys whom Fr. MacRae knew or had counseled.
Despite determined, repeated questioning, he could find no one with any
complaints about the priest.
He did, however, have teenager Jon Plankey, who claimed that Fr. MacRae had
attempted to solicit sex from him The charges stemmed from a convoluted
conversation in which the Plankey boy, saying he would do anything for the
money, asked for a loan of $75, which Fr. MacRae declined to give. Jon Plankey
had already made a molestation complaint against a Job Corp supervisor, and
would go on to charge a church choir director. He also charged a man in Florida
with attempted abuse.
As the Plankey saga showed, the role played by the prospect of financial
settlement from the church tended to announce itself with remarkable speed. Jon
Plankey's mother worked for the Keene Police. Even before Fr. MacRae was aware
of the accusations, the then-Msgr. (now Auxiliary Bishop) Frank Christian
received a call from Mrs. Plankey informing him that she had learned that Fr.
MacRae was being investigated on solicitation charges involving her son, and
that a settlement would be in order if the diocese were to avoid a lawsuit and
lawyers. The Plankeys claims were duly settled out of court (after added claims
that the priest had taken pornographic pictures of Jon.)
Fr. MacRae, summoned to meet with Detective McLaughlin, was informed that there
was much evidence against him -- including the Spofford Hospital incident --
that the police had an affidavit • for an arrest, and that it would be in
everybody's best interest for him to clear everything up and sign a confession.
On the police tape, an otherwise bewildered-sounding Fr. MacRae is consistently
clear about one thing -- that he in no way solicited the Plankey boy for sex or
anything else. "I don't understand," he says more than once, his tone that of a
man who feels that there must, indeed, be something for him to understand about
the charge and its causes that eludes him. On a leave of absence from his duties
at the parish, depressed over the return of undiagnosed seizures in the recent
year -- which had not plagued him since early childhood -- he listens as the
police assure him that he can save all the bad publicity.
"Our concern is, let's get it taken care of, let's not blow it out of proportion
. . . . You know what the media does," they warned. He could avoid all the
stories, protect the church, let it all go away quietly. At one point Fr. MacRae
asked for the recorder to be turned off for a moment, lest his answer to
questions about a male parishioner's visit to him embarrass a woman in the
community. From here on the interview continued unrecorded. As far as Fr. MacRae
could see, the police had knowledge of a terrible wrong he had done the Plankey
boy that could endanger him, psychologically, for life. He recalls that when he
thought to ask for a lawyer -- a request Detective McLaughlin denies, today,
that Fr. MacRae made -- he was told that would only muddy the waters. Here was
his opportunity to take care of things, avoid arrest, an eruption of media
attention damaging to the church. After four hours of interrogation, Fr. MacRae
agreed to sign a statement that he had endangered the welfare of a minor, a
misdemeanor. Before affixing his signature, he saw that the detective had added
the names of three more boys. Nobody, he was told, is going to believe you
solicited just one boy.
Shortly after, Sgt. Hal Brown, Detective McLaughlin's partner in the
interrogation, alerted reporters to the confession, via a press release, which
produced the inevitable storm of media publicity, "Though no sexual acts were
committed by MacRae," it noted, "there are often varied levels of
victimization." The release went on to commend Officer McLaughlin for his
Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal's editorial board. This is the first
of two parts, the second of which appears here.