When Priests Are Falsely Accused: the Mirror of Justice Cracked
By Reverend Gordon J. MacRae
January 29th, 2011
Are you sick of stories about the sex abuse scandal? I sure am. I've been treading water in this deluge for over sixteen years. In August 2010, Our Sunday Visitor Publisher Greg Erlandson read my mind when he wrote, "Sick of clerical abuse stories? We are too," (OSV, August 15). It was a bit ironic that in the same issue, These Stone Walls was profiled in OSV's "2010 Readers' Choice for the Best of the Catholic Web" (OSV In Focus, August 15).
A letter published in a subsequent issue of OSV (August 29) pointed out that "the Church is not just an easy target for the slurs of Jay Leno and the [New York] Times. It's also an easy target for lawyers and false claimants looking to score a windfall." Of my own situation, the letter writer asserted,
"To paraphrase the Gospel parable, this priest was beaten by robbers and left on the side of the road in our Church. A growing number of Catholics have become unwilling to pass him by, no matter how sick we are of the sex abuse story."
I'm grateful to see such letters. Writer Ryan MacDonald had one in a recent issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He wrote about These Stone Walls and the case against me, but in a few superb paragraphs he summed up the great danger posed to priests when Catholics are so sick of this story that they stop looking. He agreed to let me use part of his HPR essay:
"Many of the faithful are scandalized yet again when beloved priests disappear in the night, presumed by their shepherds to be guilty of crimes claimed to have occurred two, three, or four decades earlier. Many accused priests have been simply abandoned by their bishops and fellow clergy. Church laws governing their support and defense have been routinely set aside, and many have languished under dark clouds of accusation for years. Some, far too many, have been summarily dismissed from the priesthood at the behest of their bishops without due process or adequate civil or canonical defense. The Puritan founders of New England would approve of the purging of the priesthood that is now underway, for it is far more Calvinist than Catholic." (HPR, June/July 2010).
Those are powerful words, and they are the truth. If you wonder about the impact on fair-minded Catholics of conscience when their priests are so accused, please take a few moments to read the comments on my post, "The Exile of Father Dominic Menna." Father Dom is an 81-year-old Boston priest who was removed from ministry and forced to move from his home a few months ago while the Archdiocese "investigates" a claim of sexual abuse alleged to have occurred in 1959 when Father Menna was 29 years old. That's the problem with a "zero tolerance" policy. As the media-fueled lynch mob settles down, and people begin to think for themselves again, zero tolerance seems a lot more like zero common sense.
As I pointed out in my post on Roman Polanski, "The Eye of the Beholder," The Boston Globe acted true to form with front-page coverage of Father Menna's exile while virtually burying the story that Switzerland declined to extradite Roman Polanski in a real case of child rape from which he fled the country. The Archdiocese of Boston was "ground zero" of the Church's sex abuse scandal in 2002, but now many in Boston question whether they are ready to accept the character assassination of good priests like Father Menna just because someone sees a chance for a financial windfall. More on that in Part 2.
The Boston Globe's Spotlight Team may have won a Pulitzer for its 2002 archeological expedition into ancient claims against priests, but its target wasn't sexual abuse. I can prove that, and already have. A problem with sensational media "spotlight" reports is that they focus an intense beam in one place while leaving the rest of the story in darkness. Have a second look, please, at "Scandal and the News Media: William McGurn Told the Truth" for the story the Globe left behind.
"Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?" After I wrote that post several months ago, I received a letter from a Florida priest who wrote that he would never have even considered contacting me until he, too, was falsely accused. His letter was very candid. He wrote of his presumption that I and most priests accused must have been guilty of something for the spotlight of accusation to land on us.
He presumed this, he wrote, until two men he never even heard of filed demands for compensation claiming abuse at his hands two decades earlier. Now he's living in his sister's guestroom, without income, and barred from ministry pending an "investigation" that he fears will be little more than a settlement negotiation with him as an unrepresented pawn. The lawyers for his diocese are meeting with the lawyers for the claimants, but the accused priest cannot afford a lawyer. Like many priests so accused, he is entirely excluded from the closed-door settlement discussions. More on that in Part 2, too!
The priest wrote to me because his bishop and diocese are demanding that he submit to a psychological assessment at a treatment center for accused priests, and he doesn't know what to do. It's an all too familiar story. This priest knows that when I was accused I was working in ministry at one such facility as its Director of Admissions. I mentioned this in my post, "Mirror of Justice, Mother of God." I made some suggestions to this priest that he should find helpful. He needs to be very cautious because he's in grave peril. I speak from experience, and I'll describe why below.
ZERO TOLERANCE OF INNOCENCE
"An ignorant, self-mutilating psychopath!" As I described in "Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata," this is how one treatment professional representing the Church labeled Padre Pio, sight unseen, after he was falsely accused for the second time of abusing women in the confessional. The claims eventually fell apart, but not before it became clear how much some in the Church WANTED to believe them because of a cynical agenda to discredit Padre Pio.
In comments on that post, some readers wrote that they had been unaware of the extent to which Padre Pio suffered at the hands of fellow priests and Church leaders. This aspect of his life was minimized in public awareness for a long time, but I believe it's important for Church leaders and all of us to understand and learn from what took place.
On September 27, The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled "Influential Pastor Pledges to Fight Sexual Allegations." It's a story about a Baptist pastor accused by four young men. It's the subject of my post next week. Among the Journal's vast on-line readership, his announcement that he is fighting the claims was the fifth most viewed article of that day. I make no judgment on his guilt or innocence, but that's not the point. I have heard time and again that laity want the Church and falsely accused priests to fight the allegations instead of settling them.
At present, however, Church leadership in the U.S., at least, exhibits another kind of zero tolerance. It's a zero tolerance of innocence. Accused priests who maintain their innocence, and insist on standing by the truth, are in for a very rocky road. Over the next two weeks, I will lay out my case for why I believe this to be true. It's very important for both laity and priests to understand this. The time in which most priests can feel immune from all this is long past.
PRIESTS, PERPETRATORS AND PROFIT
Just before I wrote "Saints Alive," I received something very disturbing in the mail that no doubt influenced that post. It was a copy of an e-mail exchange between a writer doing research on falsely accused priests and a priest, psychologist, and former director of the largest treatment center for Catholic priests in the United States. The writer sent the exchange to me for a reaction, and certainly got one.
Here's a segment of the priest-psychologist's response to the writer:
"I am not familiar with the situation of [Father X], but I offer the following as someone who has personally worked with hundreds of priests who have been accused. False accusations are rare. They do happen and more so since all the publicity, nevertheless they are rare and usually don't hold together under closer examination …. What is challenging to Church officials and clinicians working with offenders is the layers of denial and rationalization which the offenders often believe themselves and desperately try to convince others of …. Priest offenders can be intelligent and particularly convincing."
Remember Padre Pio's exasperated response to a Church official who claimed his wounds were psychologically induced? "Go out to the fields," he wrote, "and look very closely at a bull. Concentrate on him with all your might. Do this, and see if you grow horns on your head!"
As I wrote in my post on Padre Pio, I unfortunately have none of his sanctity, but all of the exasperation he felt at being wrongly accused and unable to offer a defense. Padre Pio suffered under repeated false claims of sexual abuse because such claims are the most potent way to destroy a Catholic priest. We now know those claims were baseless even though some in the media continue even today to exploit them. The irony is that if the claims against Padre Pio were brought today in America, he would be packed off to that very "treatment" center for an evaluation. He would not be an "accused priest" at the center. As the center's former director described in chilling prose, Padre Pio would be seen from day one as a "priest offender," and his denials would be interpreted as evidence of his guilt.
False accusations are rare? Tell that to Mike Gallagher and the falsely accused men I described in "The Eighth Commandment." Tell that to the twelve falsely accused men who appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" with Innocence Project attorney Barry Scheck on October 6, after they each were exonerated following an average of 20 years in prison accused of sexual assaults they had nothing to do with. Their stories, and the hundreds like them were the subject of a landmark film, Conviction, in 2010.
Justice has turned on its head when men who stand to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars for making a false claim are automatically called "victims" by Church leaders now, while priests accused without evidence from decades ago are just as quickly called "priests-offenders" and "slayers of souls."
WILL THE TRUTH SET YOU FREE?
I'm sure it feels uncomfortable to read about this. It's just as uncomfortable to write it because I know – we all know – that abuse really did take place in many cases involving priests. At the time I was accused, I was Director of Admissions for the Servants of the Paraclete Center for priests. A significant number of our priest-residents were sent to the center after being accused of sexual misconduct. I had much interaction with priests who were accused, with the Church leaders who referred them for assessment, and sometimes even with their accusers. It is true that some priests who were guilty initially denied guilt. However, another expert in this field recently wrote just the opposite of what the former director of the center for priests said above:
"It is rare for a priest guilty of sexual abuse to maintain plausible deniability for an extended period of time. Those who maintain their innocence should thus be believed, absent solid evidence to the contrary, especially when there is a demonstrated financial incentive for false claims."
It horrifies me to realize that the dominant treatment center for accused priests in the U.S. operates with a stated bias that denies priests one of the foundational civil rights of American citizens: a presumption of innocence when accused. How does someone win when denial of the crime is used as evidence against the innocent, and often, the ONLY evidence?
I faced this same roadblock years ago. Ryan MacDonald wrote about it in "Should the Case Against Father Gordon MacRae Be Reviewed?" It was a response to a piece of sheer propaganda offered up by a member of Voice of the Faithful who condemned me, sight unseen, in terms a lot like those once used against Padre Pio.
Ryan MacDonald's rebuttal article describes an evaluation of me that took place after I was first accused. The clinician, who had an M.A. in something unknown, warned me repeatedly during interviews that my insistence that the claim never took place is called "denial" and it is evidence of guilt. He then, after only three forty minute interviews, declared me a sexual predator and paved the path to monetary settlements against my will. Perhaps the wrong people are being thrown into prison.
The staff at the Servants of the Paraclete Center was deeply supportive of me when I was accused. They believed my stated innocence, and still do. While not a single priest of my diocese has visited me, and only two have written to me (once each) in over 16 years in prison, several priests from the Servants of the Paraclete order have traveled across the country to visit me on numerous occasions.
When I was accused, our staff advised me to seek out the counsel of a Catholic therapist to help me deal with the stress of being so accused. I was advised to find counsel outside of our own staff. It is a shocking and shameful reality that, even in 1994, I was unable to find a Church sponsored treatment professional who did not automatically assume that every accused priest was guilty.
You may have read about my 1994 trial in The Wall Street Journal or on These Stone Walls. Throughout that trial, the Honorable Arthur Brennan referred to my accuser before the jury as "the victim." And he was clearly not a child. He was a 240-pound, almost 30-year-old man posing as a victim.
"I should get an Academy Award for that performance!" he was overheard saying after my trial.
Perhaps the best resource today for any accused priest facing a demand that he submit to a Church sponsored evaluation is Opus Bono Sacerdotii. Their website is filled with helpful information and solid advice for priests and their supporters.
I'm told that "The truth will set you free." Well, that's true, but first someone has to tell it. I struggle terribly with this. Taking positions contrary to those of my own bishop and diocese is the most painful part of my existence, and not something I do lightly. Cardinal Avery Dulles, and Bill Donohue at The Catholic League, both convinced me that the truth is always what is in the best interests of the Church. So tell it I must.
In two follow-up articles, I ask your patience as I describe the road less traveled – the steep uphill climb to justice for this priest who has been falsely accused, and has paid a dear price for being innocent. As is clear from TSW's "About" page, I could have left prison over 13 years ago had I been guilty. Imagine what it's like, now, to hear Church officials tell me that it's self-serving to say I am not.
This is Part 1 of a 3-part series. Click here for Part 2 andPart 3.
Fr. Gordon J. MacRae edits www.TheseStoneWalls.com. His writings from prison have appeared in First Things, The Catholic Response, Catalyst, Op-ed News, Spero News, and many on-line Catholic venues. The above article was modified from one that originally appeared at www.TheseStoneWalls.com.