NEW YORK — The Rev. Nathaniel Grady, a pious man and a fiery orator, was born to do the Lord's work.
As a boy, he walked to Sunday school hand in hand with his mother and sister. As an adult, he became a Methodist minister, shepherding a devoted flock in the rugged East Bronx while fostering friendships with judges, bishops, police chiefs, an ex-governor.
But prosecutors ignored Nat Grady's past when he was accused in 1984 of sexually abusing a half-dozen 3-year-olds, snatching them at nap time from his church day-care center.
When he was convicted 15 months later of rape, sodomy and sexual abuse, Grady recalls feeling nothing--"just numb." At 47, this clergyman became a convict facing a virtual death sentence: 45 years behind bars.
He would appeal his conviction, yes. But like Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, the minister felt alone and abandoned. Where would he find someone to believe in his innocence?
The answer, it turned out, was in a special unit for pederasts and problem inmates at Clinton state prison. There he met four other men--fellow victims of what they call a witch hunt more appropriate for 17th-century Salem, Mass., than 20th-century New York.
The five men shared their stories: In a series of high-profile trials instigated by Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola, all were convicted of sexually abusing children in Bronx day-care centers.
They spoke of disappearing documents and uncorroborated testimony, of biased judges and tainted jurors, of kindergarten kids and an overzealous district attorney.
"We weren't formally a group," Grady said. "But there was a sense that whatever it takes, we're going to win this."
They did--but only after more than a dozen years of legal battles.
All five had their convictions overturned, an extraordinary judicial rebuke of Merola's prosecutions. None was ever retried. All blamed Merola's fevered efforts. None received even a simple apology.
Grady, after 13 appeals and more than 10 years in prison, was the last to walk free.
On July 11, 1996, he was met by another group of believers: his wife, Pearl; a pair of Methodist ministers; and the most important believer of all--attorney Joel Rudin, who had made liberating the "Bronx Five" a personal crusade.
In early 1984, the nation seemed overrun by a new and horrifying scourge: child abuse in day-care centers.
There was the McMartin case in Los Angeles. Margaret Kelly Michaels was accused of vile crimes against preschoolers in New Jersey. Similar reports surfaced in Nashville, Tenn., Vineland, N.J., and West Point, N.Y.
In the Bronx, headlines screamed that dozens of children had been abused at day-care centers.
Merola was a politician turned prosecutor, a two-term city councilman who became Bronx district attorney in 1973. Balding and brash, Merola had a reputation for incorruptibility and a taste for publicity: He personally handled the guilty plea of David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz.
"I'm the first to admit that I don't exactly run from media attention," he would write in his autobiography.
In February 1984, his office targeted two accused child molesters--the Rev. Grady, who was married with two children, and 21-year-old Alberto Ramos, an aspiring teacher from a close-knit family.
City officials quickly cleared Ramos of rape allegations. The Grady investigation was dry for months.
But on Aug. 1, a Bronx woman, accompanied by her 4-year-old daughter, Tiffany, told the DA's office her child was sexually abused at the city-funded PRACA Day Care Center. Tiffany said other children were abused, and blamed her teacher, "Albert."
Merola moved quickly. Three workers at that center--Albert Algarin, 21; Jesus Torres, 29 and Franklin Beauchamp, 27--were indicted on charges of rape, sodomy and sex abuse. And Merola's office reopened the case against Alberto Ramos.
"We had one of the biggest cases of the sex abuse of children ever to emerge in this country," Merola wrote proudly in his book, "Big City D.A." The Daily News was soon hyping Merola as a mayoral candidate.
The PRACA cases were troublesome. Tiffany's mother was irate at center management over a bill for six weeks' back tuition. No adults could corroborate the children's ever-changing allegations.
One of Beauchamp's jurors had a son awaiting sentencing on a Bronx crack charge, but the trial judge let her deliberate.
Algarin's jury pool may have been biased when Merola told the New York Times that the suspect was tested for venereal disease because one of the students had gonorrhea. It wasn't true.
Most odious was the Ramos case, where prosecutors either lost or deliberately withheld evidence that could have cleared the college student of raping a 5-year-old girl at the Concourse Day Care Center.
They never revealed that the girl openly masturbated at the center, which could explain her vaginal irritation, or that she frequently watched adult films on cable television, which could explain her detailed statement to prosecutors.