Unjust conviction tested Kitty Cleveland’s family’s faith

Kitty Cleveland

American Catholic evangelist Kitty Cleveland has described her family’s experience at the hands of the FBI as a great trial that made them hold on more strongly to their faith.
“We need to be an Easter people holding on to our Jesus and he will see us to the other side,” she told her audience at the Eucharistic Convention in Takapuna on April 2.

Ms Cleveland is the daughter of the late New Orleans lawyer Carl Cleveland.

Mr Cleveland, who was also a deacon, was convicted and imprisoned in 1997 on bribery charges in relation to a scheme to protect Louisiana’s video poker industry from a public referendum. The conviction was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 2000.

“My dad was a very proud man. He had a lot of success as a lawyer and a family man and so humility needed to be cultivated in him,” Ms Cleveland said.

After university, Ms Cleveland worked as a paralegal at her father’s law firm. But she said she felt called to evangelise through music.

At this time, she said, the FBI cast a wide dragnet indicting a lot of innocent people in the hope that those people would provide information about the politicians the government was after.

“My dad got caught in it. It was miraculous that I was not. I did 95 per cent of the work for this client,” she said. “They [FBI] had a wiretap in our office and I was recorded as saying I was leaving the practice and doing what the Lord wants me to do.”

Ms Cleveland said the passage in 2 Corinthians, “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection,” became the inspiration of their family as, one by one, their hopes for her dad to be free were shot down.

On the day of the trial, Ms Cleveland said her family felt Mr Cleveland defended himself really well.

“In the courtroom with my dad, he turned to me and said, ‘Kitty, if there’s even one guilty verdict against me, my life will be over’,” she recalled.

He was convicted by the district court and sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $1.5 million in assets that he had never received.

Mr Cleveland was stripped of his law licence and, to avoid scandal, he gave up his position as a deacon.

“The night after the convictions, I went to my parent’s bedroom to check on my dad. He was lying face down in bed and I heard him say, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’?” said Ms Cleveland.

But she said her father’s life went on. Their family found themselves in a prison ministry. They sang at Mass and attendance would go up.

After a year and a half in jail, the Court of Appeals confirmed each conviction. Ms Cleveland said that, ironically, this was the point when her father found peace.

“When he knew he had another seven and a half years, he surrendered his will and just asked for peace,” she said.

In the meantime, Ms Cleveland’s own music ministry started. She wrote her first song Surrender, based on her father’s experiences. She ended up singing this song on an EWTN show in April 2000.

Early that year, her family received word the US Supreme Court wanted to hear her father’s case. This was nothing short of a miracle, she said.

“They get more than 80,000 applications a year for a criminal hearing. They take fewer than 60, and his was one of them,” she said.

Her father’s lawyers petitioned the original judge to allow Mr Cleveland to go home while awaiting the Supreme Court decision.

“The hearing for the petition was going to be on the Thursday between Easter Sunday and the feast of Divine Mercy in the year 2000, the great jubilee, when prisoners are set free and debts are forgiven,” she said.

“At three o’clock [that day], the hour of mercy, [the judge] allowed my father to go home.”

Six months later, the Supreme Court reversed her father’s conviction. “What he was convicted of wasn’t even a crime,” she said.

The trial drew them close, made their faith in Jesus stronger and gave them a ministry that would never have occurred to them had he not been imprisoned.

“The cross only makes sense after the Resurrection. We cannot understand it unless we are on the other side,” she said.

Before her father died in 2006, he became a fishing boat captain and had the time of his life. He was also reinstated as a deacon at his church.

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