Sunday, September 23, 2012

Judge Arthur Brennan Sentenced Father Gordon MacRae to Die in Prison

By Ryan A. MacDonald

     Judge Arthur Brennan

Former New Hampshire Judge Arthur Brennan was arrested at a Washington, DC protest in October 2011. In 1994, he sentenced Fr. Gordon MacRae to die in prison.

I spent some time last month poking around inside These Stone Walls, an extraordinary website that by all odds should not exist. I once wrote of all the random factors that had to coalesce for this story of a Catholic priest falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned to be told. "The Prisoner-Priest Behind These Stone Walls" tells that tale, and hopefully has drawn some fair minded souls to this remarkable site.

Spend just a minute or two at the "About" page at These Stone Walls, and consider its simple math. On September 23, 1994, in Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene, New Hampshire, Judge Arthur Brennan sentenced Catholic priest, Gordon MacRae to consecutive prison terms for a combined sentence of 67 years in prison. The sentence was imposed after a highly problematic jury trial in which MacRae was convicted of having sexually assaulted Thomas Grover  during counseling sessions in 1983 when Grover was 15 years old.

The accused priest was between 25 and 30 years old when his "crimes" - now deemed by many to be fictitious - were claimed to have occurred. MacRae was 41 years old when the sentence was imposed. He is now 59 years old and still in prison. Barring the just outcome of a pending new appeal based on new evidence in the case, the priest will be 108 years old when his sentence is fully served and he is free to leave prison. There is no other possible conclusion. Judge Arthur Brennan sentenced Father Gordon MacRae to die in the New Hampshire State Prison.

From a pragmatic perspective, and even with an emphasis on retributive justice, this makes little sense. Given that New Hampshire prosecutors sought a pre-trial plea deal that would have released MacRae over 15 years ago had he admitted guilt, a 67-year sentence seems an expensive folly that will cost New Hampshire taxpayers millions of dollars. Even if MacRae's sentences were imposed concurrently instead of consecutively - an option for judges when defendants have no prior felony record - MacRae would not still be in prison today.

Parole in New Hampshire for someone convicted of a sexual offense - true or not - invariably requires completion of a prison sex offender program which in turn requires an unqualified admission of guilt. Because of the vast numbers of men convicted of similar offenses in New Hampshire - by some estimates more than 40% of the state's prison population - the waiting list for the prison sex offender program requires that inmates must be within two years of their aggregate minimum sentence to be eligible.

By the time MacRae could fulfill this requirement for parole consideration, over 50 years will have passed between the charged offenses and the "treatment" program. At age 80, this priest's freedom would rest on his ability to reveal with consistency the details of fictitious sexual assaults alleged to have occurred when he was 29. What seemed to make perfect sense to Judge Arthur Brennan in this sentence eludes just about everyone else.

Nonetheless, these considerations are all rendered moot. From everything I have read on this case, MacRae is innocent of the claims, and cannot say otherwise just to avoid dying in prison. Justice is not served when an innocent defendant is coerced to plead guilty to something he did not do just to discharge a decades-long prison term. Coercive plea deals work well for the guilty, but not for the innocent. Careful readers of this story know that MacRae, sitting alone in a county jail awaiting sentencing, his meager assets wiped out by the trial, and his lawyers having abandoned the case for lack of funds to investigate and defend it, was coerced by circumstances into a post-trial plea deal on all remaining charges in exchange for a sentence of zero additional time in prison. He and others close to the case described this, then and now, as "a negotiated lie."

Today, I describe what played out in Judge Arthur Brennan's court after MacRae was found guilty in his first trial as an extorted lie, and it is nothing new. Attorney Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, reveals that of the hundreds of DNA exonerations his organization has championed to free the wrongfully imprisoned, a full 25% have involved coerced and extorted plea deals such as that inflicted on Father Gordon MacRae, post trial. It is for abuses such as this that a March 21, 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling vastly expanded judicial oversight of the pressures placed on defendants during plea deals, requiring that competent counsel advise them.

The details of the related, but untried charges against this priest render them highly doubtful as well. The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote of these claims brought by three of Thomas Grover's brothers and others in "A Priest's Story: The Trial" (April 27, 2005). I wrote of other details related to these claims in "A Touch of Deja Vu" and "Truth in Justice: Was the Wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?" No just person can read these documents and conclude the legitimacy of Father Gordon MacRae's trial and imprisonment.

Gordon MacRae, Prisoner No. 67546, has now been in prison for 18 years. Nearly 30 years have already passed since his charges were claimed to have occurred - charges that new evidence shows were highly doubtful. New Hampshire prosecutors were willing to let MacRae out of prison 16 years ago had he been willing to forgo trial and stand before Judge Brennan to utter a single word, "guilty."

MacRae refused three such prosecution overtures for a plea deal to end the case with a recommended sentence of only one to three years. One such offer was made to the priest's lawyers in writing. Another came in the middle of MacRae's trial. That offer was made just after 27-year-old, 220-pound Thomas Grover wept dramatically from the witness stand as he recounted being forced to endure sexual assaults five times during counseling sessions for his drug problem at age 15 in 1983. He vaguely claimed to return from week to week unable to remember being raped the week before. His heavily coached description of PTSD-induced "out of body experiences" was his only explanation for how such traumatic memories were "repressed." After this incredulous testimony, the two prosecutors looked at each other and headed for a hallway with MacRae's lawyer to offer a new plea deal - this time a sentence of one to two years. The priest refused it.

In the end, Judge Arthur Brennan sentenced Defendant Gordon MacRae to more than thirty times the maximum sentence State prosecutors were prepared to request.  Those prosecutors are long since gone. One was inexplicably fired the day after MacRae's trial ended, and later relocated to another state under a cloud. The other has since committed suicide.

Even a cursory examination of new evidence in the MacRae case warrants vacating his convictions. Additionally, there are elements of the case that could not be part of the appeal process, and are not generally known. For example, MacRae agreed to two pre-trial polygraph examinations in 1994. The polygraph tests were based on the claims of Thomas Grover and his brother, Jonathan Grover, whose accusations amassed most of the indictments for which the priest faced trial. Father MacRae passed the polygraph tests conclusively. Even today, after the passage of 18 years, the polygraph examiner recalls this case and reported that Father MacRae "did very well" on these investigative tools. Neither Thomas Grover nor Jonathan Grover, nor any other accuser ever agreed to submit to polygraph testing.

There is more. A lot more. David F. Pierre, author of the book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused and host of The Media Report, performed a public service by reviewing hundreds of pages of court documents and trial transcripts now published at the website of The National Center for Reason and Justice. David Pierre's summary of these documents, entitled "Alarming New Evidence May Exonerate Imprisoned Priest," includes the following eye-opening facts:

1.)  The ex-wife of accuser Thomas Grover has revealed this case as a fraud. Her statement describes him as a "compulsive liar" who "never stated one word of abuse by MacRae" until the prospect of money loomed. She describes him as a "manipulator...who can tell a lie and stick to it 'til its end." She reports that Grover's lawyer advised him to "act crazy before the jury" and hired a therapist to heighten the effect. Once Grover got his nearly $200,000 settlement, all therapy came to a halt.

2.)  Thomas Grover's adult stepson today states that Grover repeatedly told him before and after trial that he "had never been molested by MacRae," and that he was "setting MacRae and the Catholic Church up for money." He reports that Grover laughed and joked with him about this scheme before, during, and after MacRae's trial.

3.)  The former wife and stepson both report that before MacRae's trial, Grover repeatedly sought and obtained cash advances on his projected settlement from his contingency lawyer, a practice that is prohibited in the New Hampshire Code of Professional Conduct for lawyers.

4.)  Two observers present throughout the trial report having observed the manipulation of Grover's testimony by therapist Pauline Goupil, M.A., a victim advocate hired by Thomas Grover's contingency lawyer. According to signed statements Ms. Goupil influenced Grover's trial testimony using hand signals for him to feign sobbing during specific segments of his testimony. In several instances she was observed placing her index finger over her eye and down her cheek at which point Grover would commence sobbing, disrupting cross examination and, on at least one occasion, prompting Judge Brennan to call a recess.

5.)  Debra Collett, Thomas Grover's former drug addiction counselor, today states that Grover made so many claims of sexual abuse in the course of drug treatment that "he appeared to be going for some sort of sex abuse victim world record." She reports that his claims of sexual abuse targeted his adoptive father and others, but he did not accuse MacRae.

6.)  Ms. Collett also described that she was threatened by "coercion, intimidation, veiled and more forward threats," "overtly threatened" and confronted "with threats of arrest" by the investigating police detective to alter her testimony for the trial and "to get me to say what they wanted to hear."

7.)  A former accuser of MacRae has today recanted his claim of abuse stating, "I was aware at the time of [the] trial knowing full well that it was all bogus and having heard of the lawsuits and money involved, also the reputations of those who were making accusations." This former accuser attests that "[Keene, NH Detective James] McLaughlin had me believing that all I had to do was make up a story ... and I could receive a large sum of money as others already had. McLaughlin reminded me of the young child and girlfriend I had and referenced that life could be easier for us with a large amount of money." This witness reports he was given cash by Det. McLaughlin after this interview.

8.) James Abbott, a veteran career Special Agent with the F.B.I., today reports: "In 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. Indeed, the only thing pointing to any improper behavior by MacRae were Grover's stories - that were undermined by the people who surrounded him at the time he made his accusations."  

Fr. Gordon MacRae taken to prison on September 23, 1994

After Father MacRae was sent to prison, Thomas Grover’s three brothers reportedly walked away from this case with additional settlements from the Diocese of Manchester in excess of $430,000. I have written of these accusations in my column, “Truth in Justice: Was the Wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?” Two of the three brothers also accused another priest, but pre-trial discovery shows no indication that the other priest was interviewed or even investigated.

Following publication of the two-part "A Priest's Story" in The Wall Street Journal in 2005, Arthur Brennan defended his presiding over this trial and his sentence of MacRae by stating that it was all "more complex" than what Dorothy Rabinowitz reported. Indeed it was, and the complexities which continue to surface leave many doubts about the justice of the MacRae trial and the legitimacy of its entire pre-trial investigation and prosecution.

Arthur Brennan took early retirement from the New Hampshire bench for a brief stint with the U.S. State Department's Office of Transparency and Accountability in Iraq. The trial and sentence  of Gordon MacRae have transparency and accountability issues of their own still to be resolved.

Do the Math! Judge Arthur Brennan sentenced Father Gordon MacRae to die in a New Hampshire prison. It's an outcome I suspect this priest would not shrink from if it comes down to it. For the rest of us, evidence now spells out clearly the travesty of justice this case was - and still is.

"We are disgusted with the lack of integrity in Congress, the Senate, The White House and the U.S. Supreme Court. We will stop these pretenders from stealing our freedom and our universal human rights."
By Arthur Brennan, quoted from "Forty years later, a new call to protest" (August 21, 2011).

For more information on this case consult the National Center for Reason and Justice.


  1. Please get this story on TV. Here in Texas, many are released, even from death row after DNA found them innocent. I'm appalled that Father MacRae is in prison so long. Anyone reading this knows he is innocent. I do not know how Arthur Brennan sleeps at night. I will pray and donate money for Father and his release. I wish the Catholic Church would help him. They are AFRAID. I know because I went to confession face to face with a priest, and mentioned something about abuse, and he jumped out of his seat, not worrying about my real sins. No one spoke up for Jesus, and the crowd chose Barabbas. Let's hope this Easter is the start of his complete release by next Easter..

  2. Please, please, please pray for Priests. If you are reading this, pray and sacrifice for your Priest, and pray and sacrifice for Fr. MacRae. I learn what the Saints have said about the dignities and duties of a Priest and I weep over what is going on in the Church and in the world. Let's pray to Blessed Jacinta that we, like her, can make many sacrifices for sinners, but also for our Priests who are so reviled and persecuted for the indelible mark of the Priesthood.

  3. I am heartbroken after learning the story of Father MacRae. From now on I will pray for this poor priest of Jesus and all the innocent priests that were and are wrongfully accused by Money hungry people. Please, let us do penance and sacrifices for our priests and bishops.

  4. Please, pray for the conversion of Judge Arthur Brennan. May the Lord bring him to repentance and truth. Remember, our Catholic faith is the only one that can turn enemies into friends. We are all sinners. Therefore, all of us are worth the most precious blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ shed in the cross.

  5. Thank you for working on this. We will keep Fr. G in our prayers.

  6. I have referred this to America Center for Law and Justice, Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow.

  7. By 2021 We know full well that far too many of the bishops and cardinals have been involved in the gay life. They are happy to convict an innocent priest so attention to their own sinful activities won’t be examined. Former Cardinal McCarrick has broken the wall of silence wide open. Fr. MacRae is just another example of a priest being silenced. The fact he was not laicized shows they know he is innocent.


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