Thursday, June 30, 2011

Truth in Justice: Was the Wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?

"Doubt" is a terrific film about an accused Catholic priest starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The real Oscar-winning character in the film, however, was doubt itself. Early in the film, Father Flynn (Hoffman) delivered a homily about it saying: "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty."

It made me spontaneously think of the 1994 trial of Father Gordon MacRae, a priest of the Diocese of Manchester who will soon mark his seventeenth year in prison for crimes that I and lots of other people now doubt he committed. I wonder what certainty Father MacRae's jury had when they determined this priest to be guilty after weighing the case for less than two hours following an eight day trial in 1994.

It could not have helped that the priest's own bishop and diocese, apparently advised by their own lawyers to quickly settle the simultaneous lawsuits brought by the priest’s accusers, declared him guilty in a pre-trial press release that had the effect of demolishing his civil and canonical rights.

In the ensuing years I have studied the case against Father Gordon MacRae with a fine-toothed comb, and I am left only with doubt. What I have found most alarming about his trial is the fact that a court and a jury convicted him with no evidence at all beyond the lynch-mob hype of local media and a police detective and prosecutor determined to find the priest guilty at the expense of due process and civil liberties. Equally alarming is the fact that there was much evidence that Father MacRae's jury never heard at all. I have examined some of that evidence in the form of police reports and pre-trial dispositions of the priest's accusers. The cold hard fact is that Father Gordon MacRae's accusers originally also accused another priest - Father Stephen Scruton - who fled the state when subpoenaed for MacRae's trial. What happened next is an account that will leave you exactly where it left me: filled with doubt about whether a priest who has staunchly maintained his innocence for seventeen years in prison was guilty of anything at all.

What follows is an account of the evidence Father Gordon MacRae's judge and jury never saw or heard. When you read it, and I hope you will, I am certain you will join me in the only possible conclusion: doubt.

Let's hope our common doubt creates the enduring bond Father Flynn predicted. There is an innocent priest languishing in prison who needs our help. Originally published at These Stone Walls, "Truth in Justice: Was the wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?" is by far the most important document I have ever written.

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