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My Thorn in the Flesh


Carl Cleveland had it all. Wealth. Love. Success. Then the FBI showed up. Out of the blue, he faced obscure legal charges. He was innocent, but the deck was stacked. His sentence: 10 years in prison. Cleveland relates his riveting tale - a story of three grueling years in prison where he was sustained by constant prayer. And ending in joyful victory - an appeal that would prove to be the fastest handed down in Supreme Court history.

The Cleveland family,
Christmas of 1994

After thirty-five years of practicing law as a civil litigation trial lawyer, I had come to love the law, finding it useful for resolving disputes and correcting grave injustices.

However, through bitter experience, I would soon learn the federal criminal justice system is broken. I would also soon realize the power of prayer and the reason to have hope in all circumstances.

My firm and I typically represented powerless and downtrodden clients against powerful people and institutions. We almost always won. Although we had only ten attorneys, for years, we beat some of the nations biggest and best law firms.

I loved my legal practice.

From a personal faith perspective, I was equally satisfied. In 1983, my wife made me attend a Cursillo retreat. Cursillos as the retreats are called are designed to form and encourage persons to evangelize in their everyday environments. While at the retreat, I had a powerful conversion experience. Shortly thereafter, I joined a mens prayer group and began to read Scripture and pray with fervor for the first time in my life. A few years later, I began a three-and-a-half year diaconate formation program at Notre Dame Seminary for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

In 1989, I was ordained a permanent deacon and assigned to my home parish. I assisted at Mass, preached on a regular rotation of Sundays, administered the sacraments of baptism and matrimony, presided at funerals and discharged other duties.

My wife, Joey, served as director of New Orleans Right to Life, a well-known pro-life group. A suburban mother of six daughters, she gave talks to teenagers in high schools in the New Orleans metro area.

I am equally proud of my six daughters. We are a close-knit family. We enjoyed financial success and good health, until August 17, 1995 when the FBI arrived.

As I walked into my office that day, I was instantly involved in a headline-grabbing political scandal. Although my role was minor, and the press focused primarily on elected officials, I soon grew tired of the lurid headlines and my near daily appearances on the six oclock news.

While a lawyer, I had clients in the controversial video poker business, and I had appeared before legislative committees drafting operating regulations. I always insisted that my clients play by the rules. I discouraged campaign contributions to legislative members involved in the regulatory process. And, I requested that my clients contacts with legislators be exclusively through reputable registered lobbyists. I was sure my clients were following the rules.

When I met with the U.S. Attorney, I was confident my ordeal would soon end. I didnt seek any form of immunity, and I offered to answer any question on any topic under the penalty of perjury. If the attorney-client privilege would prevent my answering, I was certain I could get the consent of my clients to waive the privilege so that I could fully respond to any questions directed to me.

All I asked for in return was a good-faith gentlemens agreement that I would not be prosecuted if I were successful in convincing the prosecutors that I was innocent.

I was unprepared for the response.

Upon hearing my offer, the ranking district prosecutor flung my files to the floor and, shouting profanities, left the room. I was shocked and confused.

But, then, the lead prosecutors assistants hinted another deal was possible. I could get a slap on the wrist for pleading guilty to some lesser charge (this guilty plea would supposedly buttress my credibility when I testified against others targeted by the prosecutors) if I would cooperate by providing the government with damaging testimony against any of the several public officials whose names I was given. When I said I had no such information, they persisted. They emphasized that I had only to say what they needed to hear. They stressed, as a lawyer, I should know what that meant.

When I realized they were inviting me to commit perjury to avoid prosecution, I was stunned! As they emphasized what a believable witness I would make, I felt nauseated. I was threatened with destruction if I didnt cooperate with the government. I resolved, no matter what the cost, I would never sell my soul and destroy someones life by buying a deal for myself with perjury.

Finally, I was indicted, and the trial was scheduled for May of 1997. Upon my indictment, a friend told me she was moved to share a passage from Scripture with me. The passage was from 2 Corinthians 12, which I now read repeatedly day after day. As she read, a cold dread crept into my soul:
But [the Lord] said to me, My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection. And so I willingly boast of my weakness instead, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions, and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong [2 Cor. 12: 9-10].



Carl Cleveland. "My Thorn in the Flesh." Excerpted from Amazing Grace For Those Who Suffer (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2002).


This article is reprinted with permission from Ascension Press.

Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer is a collection of stories of hope and healing. These true stories will make you laugh, make you cry, and show you the power of Gods healing grace.Order it by clicking the book cover to your right.

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Copyright © 2002 Ascension Press
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