“Except for these chains”: A story of grace behind prison walls

“Except for these chains”: A story of grace behind prison walls February 5, 2013

I write about spiritual healing for adults who have suffered childhood sexual abuse, so it may seem strange that lately I have found myself praying for Father Gordon J. MacRae (left), a Catholic priest who has been imprisoned since 1994 on abuse charges.

Father MacRae came to my attention through his friend Father George David Byers of Holy Souls Hermitage, who often writes about MacRae on his blog. What first interested me about the imprisoned priest was that Father Byers, whom I know and trust, told me that Father MacRae was wrongfully convicted.

My experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse has led me to be very sensitive to lies and sympathetic with those who battle to bring to light the truth about their sufferings. So I read through the articles and commentary on Father MacRae’s website, including the 2005 investigative report by Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal that highlighted serious questions about the validity of his conviction that have yet to be answered. More recently, a number of new pieces of evidence have arisen casting doubt on the priest’s guilt, and one man who accused him has recanted.

Although the evidence he presents in his favor is compelling, I don’t know for certain if Father MacRae is innocent of the crimes of which he was convicted, and perhaps I never will. I do know three things:

  • If he is innocent, he needs prayers.
  • If he is guilty, he needs more prayers.
  • In any case, he has done something very beautiful while in prison. He has helped lead a repentant convicted murderer to the merciful love of Christ in the Catholic Church.

The Marians of the Immaculate Conception’s Divine Mercy News recently published the inspiring story of Pornchai Moontri, whose life has been transformed by the love of God:

Pornchai, a native of Thailand, stumbled into a Shop ‘n Save supermarket in March 1992 and proceeded to take a bottle of beer from the refrigerator, open it, and drink from it. When confronted by a store manager, he tried to flee. Outside in the parking lot an altercation ensued, and a 27-year-old Shop ‘n Save employee who had pinned him down on the pavement was killed with a knife wielded by Pornchai.

Pornchai was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He was 19 years old at the time. He’s 39 years old today. …

It took Pornchai years of self-righteous anger, years of misery and hopelessness, before he was graced with the realization that God is real and that God is Mercy Incarnate. This realization culminated when, in the prison chapel, he received the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation on April 10, 2010. The following day — the Feast of Divine Mercy Sunday — he received his First Holy Communion from the Most Rev. John McCormack, bishop of Manchester, N.H. …

In a recent phone interview, Pornchai said, “In the course of my life, what I have done and what has been done to me, I do need God’s mercy, and He has given it to me.”

That speaks volumes coming from a man who has spent more than half of his life behind bars. At his trial, he was defended by a court-appointed attorney who said nary a word about the life Pornchai led before that fateful evening when he murdered a man. Nothing was said of the victimhood he withstood long before his crime was committed.

Nothing about how, two years after his birth in northern Thailand in 1973, Pornchai’s mother abandoned him. Nothing about how he never attended grade school and never learned to read or write until years later. Nothing about how his mother re-emerged with a new husband when he was 11-years old and took him to the United States against his will. Nothing was said about his assertion that his stepfather repeatedly raped him over a period of three years. Nothing about how in the racially monochromatic Maine of his youth, he was called “gook” by his classmates who did everything they could to make him feel different and stupid because of his broken English.

Nothing about how, at the age 14, anger was all he had, and by then he inflicted it upon anyone and everyone. …

By the time he got to prison, it wasn’t self-protection he sought. Rather, it was self-destruction. He was remorseful for the murder of an innocent man. He could hardly bear to think about it. Just so the pain could end, he did everything within his power to provoke fellow inmates into killing him.

“Really, I wanted them to beat me to death or stab me with a homemade knife” he says. “To me at the time, I had no reason to live.”

Because of his violent tendencies, Pornchai was placed into solitary confinement many times for a combined six-plus years. It was there where he learned of the murder of his mother, who had by then relocated to Guam.

“I was now alone in my rage,” Pornchai says.

When he was released for a final time from solitary confinement and placed within the general prison population, his urge to commit violence had subsided. He was eventually transferred from a prison in Maine to New Hampshire State Prison where he formed a friendship that has changed his life.

It was with a Catholic priest.

Through a fellow inmate, Pornchai met the Rev. Gordon MacRae, a down-to-earth spiritual man and prolific writer who seemed to have a lot of answers to a lot of questions. Is there a God? Who is He? How can we be sure? …

“I was real hostile, and told [Fr. Gordon] I just wanted him to help me get transferred to a prison in Bangkok, Thailand,” Pornchai says. “‘Be careful what you ask for,’ he said. ‘I won’t help you pursue something that will only further destroy you.’

“I didn’t care,” Pornchai recalls, “so why on Earth should Gordon care? I was hostile to him for a long time. I had mastered the art of driving anyone who cared away from me, but in Gordon I met my match. Over time I was able to see that under my anger was a lot of hurt and pain, and he saw it and helped me to see it, too.” …

Pornchai says Fr. Gordon never pushed him into becoming Catholic.

“He never even brought it up,” Pornchai says. “I was pulled to it by the force of grace and the hope that one day I could do good for others.”

Since then, Pornchai has immersed himself in religious studies. He earned his Graduate Equivalency Diploma. He’s fluent in math. He is excellent at detailed carpentry, including building model ships. He lives a life of prayer and performs deeds of mercy. He laughs when he describes the reaction he gets now from prisoners who knew him back before his conversion.

“They don’t even recognize me as the same person,” he says. “They now see a man who, despite the pain and difficulty of being in prison, is at peace.” …

For Fr. Gordon, Pornchai has been an inspiration, a blessing from God that has helped him on his own difficult journey.

“I have never met a man more determined to live the faith he has professed than Pornchai Moontri,” wrote Fr. Gordon in a recent post on his website, thesestonewalls.com, which is administered by a friend outside of the prison. “In the darkness and aloneness of a prison cell night after night for the last two of his 20 years in prison, Pornchai stares down the anxiety of uncertainty, struggles for reasons to believe, and finds them.”

The entire article by Felix Carroll is a must-read, as is an essay Pornchai wrote about his conversion, “The Duty of a Knight.” His story, and his joy, reminds me of St. Paul’s words to King Agrippa: “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”

Please join me in praying for Father MacRae and Pornchai. Please pray too that I have the opportunity to speak to Catholic inmates at the prison where both men reside, as I have heard that Pornchai has been helped by my book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. It is a great longing of mine to extend my speaking apostolate to reach prisoners, so many of whom have suffered childhood trauma.

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