Selective Reporting Undermines Defense of a Wrongfully Imprisoned Priest

How a man suffered injustice from the media, the law, and his church.

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash.

Writing for InDepthNH, a New Hampshire online news venue, reporter Damien Fisher presented a negligent and entirely biased overview of the case against Fr. Gordon MacRae.  On the one hand, it represented well that Keene, New Hampshire Detective James McLaughlin, who orchestrated the case against MacRae, is now exposed for falsifying records, tampering with evidence, and other misconduct which contributed to wrongful convictions.  

On the other hand, a recent article by Damien Fisher obfuscates any future defense of MacRae with content that has already been debunked by more balanced investigations in The Wall Street Journal  and elsewhere.  (See Beyond These Stone Walls page on The Wall Street Journal.)  

Fisher’s article includes only the one-sided claims of a 2003 Grand Jury Report that a New Hampshire judge has already determined to have been published without merit or justice.  Here is what Judge Richard McNamara wrote regarding the content of that report:

“[The 2003 Grand Jury Report on the Diocese of Manchester] fulfilled none of the traditional purposes of the common law grand jury.  Rather than investigation of crime, the report is a  post hoc summary of information the grand jury considered but did not indict on.  A grand jury report that does not result in an indictment but references supposed misconduct results in a quasi-official accusation of wrongdoing drawn from secret  ex parte proceedings in which there is no opportunity available or presented for a formal defense. ...  Such a grand jury report is not far removed from, and no less repugnant to traditions of fair play than lynch law.”   — New Hampshire Judge Richard McNamara, August 12, 2019, In re: Grand Jury, No. 217-2017-CV-00382.

Much of the content of the 2003 Grand Jury Report was generated in one-sided claims for settlement money and handed over to the State by Diocese of Manchester official Reverend Edward J. Arsenault.  While settling without due process some 250 abuse claims against priests of the New Hampshire Diocese dating back 30 to 50 years, Arsenault was later charged and convicted of financial crimes in the amount of nearly $300,000 used to secretly support a relationship with a young gay musician.  Now dismissed from the priesthood, he has a new name, Edward J. Bolognini.  For some reason, he has been given a pass in Damien Fisher’s account.

The U.S. Department of Justice has recently disclosed an ongoing investigation into over $45 billion in fraudulent claims to reap benefits related to the Covid 19 pandemic.  After the massive Gulf oil spill several years ago Exxon Oil Company had to establish a fraud task force to separate valid claims of damages from the billions of dollars in fraudulent ones.  What makes anyone think that the Catholic abuse story has been spared such fraud?

This all requires a response.  Today and over the next few weeks in these pages, David F. Pierre, Jr. of The Media, Catholic League President Bill Donohue and I will continue this rebuttal of that one-sided material.  I hope readers of this will share this information widely to give this truthful side of the MacRae story the attention it deserves.  Anything less is to contribute to what Dr. Bill Donohue called “a travesty of justice.”

Conflicts of Interest

In reporting on the MacRae case, however, Damien Fisher also has a conflict of interest.  His wife is a columnist for Parable magazine, the official publication of the Diocese of Manchester, Father MacRae’s estranged diocese.

The Parable Managing Editor is Kathryn Marchocki, formerly a reporter for the statewide newspaper, New Hampshire Union Leader.  In that capacity, Ms. Marchocki covered the 1994 MacRae trial and the 2003 Grand Jury Report on the Diocese of Manchester.

In early 2003, just before the New Hampshire Grand Jury Report was released to the public, Kathryn Marchocki met with Fr. MacRae at the New Hampshire State Prison.  He presented her with a large amount of documentation that challenged the hyped contents and accusations in that one-sided report.  Ms. Marchocki reportedly told the priest that his information is compelling, “but New Hampshire news media and my paper in particular are so anti-Catholic my editor will never let me write about this.”

Nonetheless, she asked MacRae — then in his ninth year in prison — to send her everything he had. He did, but never heard from Ms. Marchocki again. Now she is the editor of the Diocese of Manchester news magazine in which Damien Fisher’s wife is a columnist appearing in the monthly publication just opposite the musings of Father MacRae’s bishop, Most Reverend Peter A. Libasci, who himself now stands accused in a sexual abuse civil lawsuit in the State of New York.  (See “Bishop Peter A. Libasci Was Set Up by Governor Andrew Cuomo.”)

Readers are likely aware of developments in the matter of former Keene, New Hampshire Detective James McLaughlin and his brief appearance on the Attorney General’s “Laurie List,” also called the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule.  When the first rumblings about rampant dishonesty on the part of Detective McLaughlin began to appear in 2021, I personally reached out to Damien Fisher with a concern that the Father MacRae case had not been properly investigated and did not receive a fair trial.

Mr. Fisher shot back immediately with a verbal attack.  He declared MacRae to be guilty based solely on untried rumor, innuendo, and uncorroborated claims for monetary settlement, such as those brought without trial in the discredited 2003 Grand Jury Report.  He offered nothing that could be interpreted as evidence.  I offered to send Mr. Fisher some compelling documentation that challenged his narrative, but I received this final message in reply:  “Stop!  I do not want to see anything you send.  My mind is made up!”  

So much for journalistic integrity and objectivity.

Fr Gordon MacRae

Father MacRae in 1983, the time of the alleged charges (Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal)

A Pornographic Priest?

Much of Mr. Fisher’s current media coverage of MacRae centers on a claim that the priest produced pornographic photographs and videos of his accusers.  The truth about this is in plain sight right at Mr. Fisher’s fingertips, but he omitted it.  The accusation of creating pornography was first lodged by Detective McLaughlin himself in 1988.  He had no evidence for it beyond a claim that he choreographed and promoted for a civil lawsuit involving an individual named Jon Plankey described in McLaughlin’s report as his “employee in a family-owned business.”

The first accusation elicited by McLaughlin was that MacRae had attempted to verbally solicit the teen.  It was only after some evolution that a more substantial — and more lucrative — claim emerged that MacRae took photographs of the youth.  McLaughlin actually wrote in his report that these claims will be the basis for a civil lawsuit against the Catholic Church.  The lawsuit was settled without question by MacRae’s diocese over his strenuous objections.

The pornography accusation later weighed heavily in Father MacRae’s 1994 trial and sentencing in an unrelated case, that brought by accuser Thomas Grover.  When sentencing the priest to life in prison, Judge Arthur Brennan cited MacRae’s “aggressive denials of wrongdoing [and] the evidence of child pornography is clear and compelling.”

But none of it ever happened.  In 2005, Dorothy Rabinowitz at The Wall Street Journal investigated this entire case for her extensive report, “A Priest’s Story,” which served as a factual refutation of much of the content appearing in the 2003 Grand Jury Report. The accuser in the pornography matter, then in his 20s, declined to answer any questions, but Ms. Rabinowitz questioned Detective James McLaughlin about the “clear and compelling” evidence of child pornography.  The detective was cornered, and admitted, “There was never any evidence of pornography.”  

This information was available to Damien Fisher, but if he found it he could not continue the pornography victimization narrative, so he apparently never bothered to look.

There is a lot more to that story.  In 1988, McLaughlin interviewed MacRae about Plankey’s claims for four hours on tape.  McLaughlin, as was his practice, wrote reports claiming several admissions by MacRae that the priest says today were never made.  MacRae insists that those claims could not possibly be on the tape.  Later, when MacRae faced trial in 1994, the judge ordered all tape recordings turned over to his defense.  Neither MacRae nor his lawyer ever received a single one.  McLaughlin claimed, under oath in sworn Interrogatories, that the tapes in question were accidentally taped over for another case and the transcripts he cited were never made due to “clerical error.”

Eleven years later in 2005, McLaughlin apparently forgot his earlier perjury and sent that tape to The Wall Street Journal :  Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote of how McLaughlin badgered MacRae again and again to plea to a misdemeanor of attempting to endanger a minor, but without legal representation.  Here is her 2005 report about the tape:

“Fr. MacRae, summoned to meet with Detective McLaughlin, was informed that there was much more evidence against him, that the police had an affidavit for an arrest, and that it would be in everybody’s best interest for him to 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 these charges that eludes him.

“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.” — The Wall Street Journal, “A Priest’s Story”

From here on the recording was shut off.  MacRae says the badgering went on for another three hours.  The priest had never before been in such a situation.  When he asked if he should consult a lawyer, the detective reportedly said, and today denies saying it, doing so “will only muddy the waters.”  

In the end, MacRae signed the paper without legal counsel just to end this.  In concluding the matter, McLaughlin wrote a press release:  “Though no sexual acts were committed by MacRae,” it noted, “there are often varied levels of victimization.”  Indeed there are!

In his police report on this matter, Detective McLaughlin wrote that Plankey worked for him in a family-owned business.  Plankey’s mother was also an employee of the Keene Police Department.  Before MacRae even knew about the claims, The Wall Street Journal reported, MacRae’s diocese received a call from Mrs. Plankey informing  officials there that MacRae was being investigated on solicitation charges and a quick out-of-court settlement would “avoid a lawsuit and lawyers.”

Ah, but there’s more!  

This was not Detective McLaughlin’s first use of Jon Plankey to bring down a target.  Plankey made an identical set of claims against Timothy Smith, a Keene Congregational church choir director with whom he struck up a relationship.  That case was prosecuted by McLaughlin and ended in a similar misdemeanor plea deal.  And Plankey accused a local Job Corp supervisor of soliciting him.  That was another misdemeanor case pursued by McLaughlin.  Then he accused a man who picked him up hitchhiking of soliciting him.

It was only after the above interview that the claim of producing photographs was made.  The priest was never charged with this because that would require producing some evidence.  Instead, McLaughlin capitalized on it for a civil settlement for Plankey despite later revealing to The Wall Street Journal  that the story was contrived and there was never any evidence of pornography.  The story nonetheless had a long shelf life.  It was used by Judge Arthur Brennan to enhance MacRae’s sentence after trial in 1994.

And it was used by David Clohessy at SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, to bolster a Crimes Against Humanity charge against Pope Benedict XVI in the International Criminal Court at The Hague.  This aspect of McLaughlin’s handiwork was explored by journalist, Joann Wypijewski in “Spotlight Oscar Hangover: Why ‘Spotlight’ Is a Terrible Film.

The Plankey case was among the files investigated by former FBI Special Agent Supervisor Jim Abbott, a specialist in counter-terrorism.  Like most claimants, Jon Plankey took his money from the Diocese and disappeared.  When Agent Abbott found him, Plankey refused to answer any questions without a lawyer.  I had been writing about this matter and received an email message from Jon Plankey’s brother.  Agent Abbott went to interview him and was told that the claims were a scam for settlement money.  The brother said there is more to tell, but he, too, wanted money.

The Plea Deal Injustice

Damien Fisher relentlessly referenced Father MacRae’s post-trial acquiescence to a plea deal coerced by circumstances, presenting it as his sole evidence to bolster his implications that MacRae must be guilty.  I do not want to belabor this point for I have written about it extensively already.

When MacRae was convicted at trial — after Judge Arthur Brennan instructed the jury to “disregard inconsistencies in [accuser] Thomas Grover’s testimony” — he still faced additional “pile-on” charges from Grover’s brothers and two others who had climbed aboard for the inevitable monetary settlements.

When one of the newer accusers learned that MacRae was not likely to take any deal, he left the country to avoid testifying in a trial and he never filed his civil claim.  Another accuser groomed by McLaughlin, Keene native Steven Wollschlager, received a summons to appear before a grand jury to indict the priest on a new charge.

Steven later went on to describe that he was solicited by McLaughlin to join other accusers in fabricating claims against MacRae.  The enticement was a $50 bill and an assurance that a lot more money could be obtained in a civil lawsuit against the Church.  When Steven balked, McLaughlin allegedly pointed out the girlfriend and child Steven had and said that life could be so much easier for them with a lot of money.  Steven pondered this, and then agreed.  He later described these meetings with McLaughlin:

“It was all about the lawsuits and the money.  I was led to believe that all I had to do was make up a story about MacRae like others had done and I could obtain a lot of money.  I was using drugs at the time and could have been influenced into saying anything they wanted for money.”

On the way to the court, Steven explained, he found his moral center and could not go through with it.  He said that he knew MacRae as a teen and that the priest only tried to help him.  He was told by an unnamed court official, “We won’t be needing anything further from you.”

When the trial was over, MacRae was penniless, abandoned by his Bishop and Diocese.  He was placed in jail in custody until sentencing and had nowhere to turn.  His lawyer resigned, exasperated at the three-ring circus in the trial and the lack of being allowed to put on an adequate defense.  McLaughlin and prosecutors then offered MacRae another deal: a concurrent one-year sentence ending all remaining charges to be served simultanously with the sentence yet to be handed down in the Thomas Grover case.

MacRae’s trial lawyer, who left the trial before it was over, told MacRae in a telephone call from jail that he had no choice but to accept the deal.  His  bishop and Diocese, anxious to provide settlements and be rid of this, had issued a pre-trial press release declaring that the entire Catholic Church was victimized by MacRae.  Everyone around him told him he had no choice.  He went to the Court men’s room and vomited after entering his negotiated lie.  I wrote extensively of this in “The Post-Trial Extortion of Fr. Gordon MacRae.”

All of this — my articles, the extensive coverage by The Wall Street Journal, the investigation by FBI Special Agent Jim Abbott, the polygraph examinations that Fr. MacRae passed conclusively, the findings of the National Center for Reason and Justice now sponsoring MacRae’s defense  — has been in plain sight, readily available to Damien Fisher.  He opted instead to spread another narrative, and God alone knows why.

There is more still, and it is coming.  Perhaps the most egregious “evidence” cited by Damien Fisher came from supposed psychological evaluations of the accused priest.  This will be the topic of a follow-up post next week in these pages.

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“In my three-year investigation of this matter, I have found no evidence that Gordon MacRae committed these crimes, or any crimes.” from the sworn affidavit of former FBI Special Agent James Abbott.

Ryan A. MacDonald has written extensively on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. 

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