Saturday, May 30, 2009

Christ appears to Paul in prisonSt. Paul in prison. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr


Priests In Crisis

“Kill the priest!” “Kill the priest!” “Kill the priest!” This rousing foot-stomping chant greeted me as I was led down the tier of a prison cell block nearly 15 years ago. It was maddening.
Today the eve of Pentecost 2009, I have been in prison for 5,333 days and nights for a crime that never took place. My fellow prisoners do not organize chants for my demise any longer. I have a pretty good rapport with them, though even after 15 years it’s clear that I don’t quite fit in.
I live daily with the irony that I would not today be in prison if I did not maintain my innocence. Under a deal offered by the state I would have left prison over 13 years ago had I been guilty and willing to say so.
Today I am prisoner number 67546 in the Hancock Unit of the New Hampshire State Prison. I live in a prison block reserved primarily for men serving long, long sentences, most of them for murder. I taught college courses to prisoners for several years and now work in the prison library.
The case against me was a fraud brought for the guarantee of hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement money. I have come to know that there is far more fraud in the claims against American Catholic priests than most people know or want to believe.
Some would have us believe that no one – certainly no young man – would falsely accuse a priest just for money. My fellow prisoners laugh at such naïve beliefs. Some of them have reminded me that they have taken lives for far less money than what was gained by those who took my reputation and freedom 15 yrs. ago.
A few years ago a contingency lawyer representing dozens of claimants seeking five million dollars in new settlements from my diocese was quoted in a local newspaper: “Church officials didn’t even ask for details for the claims, such as location and date and the abuse alleged. I’ve never seen anything like it.” That same lawyer is now in his fifth round of mediated settlements.
The names of the accused priests have been released to the public despite the contingency lawyer’s statement that the church sought no corroboration for the claims whatsoever before handing over millions of dollars. The names of the accusers, many of them now men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, remain shielded from public view.
Fifteen years in prison for a crime that never took place is no small affair. In 2005 the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, in the first of a series of letters between us, salvaged the spiritual life of my priesthood. He placed my unjust imprisonment in a context that in my anger and hurt I had not previously considered. Cardinal Dulles wrote:
God does not intend that your life be futile. Much of the finest Christian literature comes from believers who were Unjustly imprisoned. Do you believe, Fr. MacRae? Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and be instrumental in a reform.
I am sure that in the plan of Divine Providence your ministry of suffering is part of your priestly vocation, filling up for the Church what is wanting in the suffering of Christ. Your writing which is clear, eloquent and spiritually sound will one day be monument to your trials.
I hope and pray that this is so. Cardinal Dulles gave meaning and purpose to something that is otherwise meaningless, as anyone who has ever served an unjust imprisonment will attest. On his suggestion, I now offer each day in prison as a share in the suffering of Christ for the spiritual support of another.
I will always be grateful to Cardinal Dulles. I am also grateful to Suzanne Sadler and “Priests in Crisis.” It takes a singular courage to speak against any unjust tide.
Please do not be ready to always believe the worst of any priest who is accused in the current climate.
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