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Police Investigative Misconduct Railroaded an Innocent Catholic Priest

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Police Investigative Misconduct Railroaded an Innocent Catholic Priest

Ryan MacDonald

February 20, 2021

In September, 1988, Keene, New Hampshire sex crimes detective James F. McLaughlin received a letter from Ms. Sylvia Gale, a New Hampshire child protection social worker. Ms. Gale’s letter reported third-hand information that Catholic priest, Gordon J. MacRae, had once been a priest in Florida “where he molested two boys, one of whom was murdered and his body mutilated. The case is supposed to be still unsolved.”

According to Sylvia Gale’s letter, the information was passed to her by an unnamed employee of New Hampshire Catholic Social Services who claimed that she had been told this information by her employer, Monsignor John Quinn, on condition that she would be fired if she ever divulged it.

Detective McLaughlin skipped the logical first steps that such a letter might have set in motion. He did not consult the priest’s personnel file – which revealed nothing about his ever being in Florida. And he did not consult Monsignor John Quinn, the named originator of the story.

Instead, armed with the explosive Florida murder-molestation letter, McLaughlin set out to interview dozens of parents and their adolescent sons who had prior contacts with MacRae. Within a week, the entire community was in a state of alarm about the murderous lecher-priest in its midst.

Among those McLaughlin interviewed about Ms. Gale’s letter in 1988 were four young adult brothers, Jonathan, David, Thomas, and Jay Grover, the adopted sons of another state social worker, Ms. Patricia Grover, a colleague of Sylvia Gale. According to McLaughlin’s 72-page report, she vowed to question each of her sons about their interactions with MacRae. None of them reported knowing or suspecting anything of a criminal nature.

McLaughlin’s report on this investigation was filled with innuendo, but no substance. He repeatedly attributed untrue information about MacRae to unnamed “informants” and other “subjects.” Toward the end of the report he finally quoted a “Sgt. Smith” from an unnamed Florida police agency.

“Sgt. Smith,” if he actually exists, reported that while there was no molestation-murder case involving a priest, there was a priest who molested a child in Florida and was “quietly moved by the church to New Hampshire.” “Sgt. Smith” added that “your suspect is too young to be that priest.” McLaughlin’s report gives the impression that he never even thought to ask for the name of that priest.

Five years passed. In 1993, one of the Grover brothers, Jonathan, age 24, appeared in McLaughlin’s office with a new story that he had been unable to remember five years earlier. He said he was repeatedly sexually assaulted when he was twelve years old by two priests, Gordon MacRae and Stephen Scruton. His initial claim was that the two priests acted in concert, fondling his genitals with their feet while in a hot tub at the YMCA. He then went on to describe other assaults “in the rectory where the priests live.”

An immediate problem was that MacRae was never in that parish until Grover was fourteen years old, and Scruton was never there until Grover was sixteen. A second problem was that one of Grover’s high school classmates, “T.B.” claimed 18 months earlier in an interview with McLaughlin that he was molested by Stephen Scruton alone who fondled his genitals with his foot in a hot tub at the YMCA. “T.B.” received an undisclosed financial settlement from the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, NH.

The “T.B.” case had no connection to MacRae. McLaughlin wrote the Grover report while apparently having no memory whatsoever that he wrote a nearly identical report eighteen months earlier about a foot molestation event by a priest in a hot tub at the YMCA.

Complicating both accounts, McLaughlin’s investigation file contained a transcript of “The Church’s Sexual Watergate,” an episode of a Geraldo Rivera Show that aired in November 1988. It had apparently been faxed to McLaughlin from the studio. The Geraldo transcript preceded McLaughlin’s reports in both cases above, and contained this excerpt:

Geraldo: “What did the priest do to you, Greg?”

Greg Ridel: “When I was 12 years old, he placed his foot on my genitals in a YMCA hot tub and began rubbing. This went on to other things in the rectory where the priests live.”

MacRae was brought to trial for these unsubstantiated claims in September, 1994. Pre-trial, he was twice offered plea deals to serve one-to-three years in prison for a guilty plea. Then the offer was reduced to one-to-two years. Citing his innocence, MacRae rejected these offers. Before his trial commenced, his Catholic diocese, already heavily into settlement negotiations, issued this press release:

“The Church has been a victim of the actions of Gordon MacRae just as these individuals …. It is clear that he will never again function as a priest.”

After the trial, the Grover brothers received financial settlements from the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, NH in excess of $610,000.

Unlike his protocols in nearly all other cases, Detective McLaughlin recorded none of his interviews with claimants in the MacRae case. A reason for the absence of recorded interviews may become clear from a statement of Steven Wollschlager, a young man who accused MacRae during one of McLaughlin’s interviews, and then recanted, refusing to repeat his accusations to a grand jury. From his sworn statement:

“In 1994 before [MacRae] was to go on trial, I was contacted again by McLaughlin. I was aware at the time of the [MacRae] trial, knowing full well that it was all bogus and having heard all the talk of the lawsuits and money involved, and also the reputations of those making the accusations …. During this meeting I just listened to the scenarios being presented to me. The lawsuits and money were of great discussion and I was left feeling that if I would just go along with the story I could reap the rewards as well.

“McLaughlin asked me three times if [MacRae] ever came on to me sexually or offered me money for sexual favors. [He] had me believing that all I had to do was make up a story about [MacRae] and I could reap a large sum of money as others already had. McLaughlin … referenced that life could be easier with a large sum of money … I was at the time using drugs and could have been influenced to say anything they wanted for money. A short time later after being subpoenaed to court, I had a different feeling about the situation.”

Mr. Wollschlager has never been allowed to present his testimony before a judge in any of the summarily denied state and federal appeals of the MacRae case.

Knowing that MacRae rejected plea deal offers to serve only one to two years in prison, Judge Arthur Brennan chastised the priest for insisting on a trial and sentenced him to consecutive terms for a total of 67 years. MacRae is now in his 27th year in prison and continues to maintain his innocence.

Author’s Note: For a full version of this story, see “Truth in Justice: Was the Wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?”