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 nation’s 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 men’s 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 o’clock 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 didn’t 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 gentlemen’s 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 prosecutor’s 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 didn’t “cooperate” with the government. I resolved, no matter what the cost, I would never sell my soul and destroy someone’s 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].

In the passage St. Paul also talks of a mystical experience a man, presumably he, had fourteen years before. My adult conversion experience at the Cursillo retreat had been fourteen years earlier. St. Paul spoke about a thorn in his flesh that tormented him for four years. My public disgrace and persecution were a thorn in my side, but for my pain to last four years, I would have to lose my trial and my appeal. At the time, that seemed unthinkable.

St. Paul admitted, when his suffering came, he prayed three times for it to pass, and God said, “No.” The Lord told St. Paul that the grace showered upon him was all he would need to endure, “for in weakness power reaches perfection.”

With an intense foreboding, I entered into the trial. If I were to share in St. Paul’s ordeal, I was not going to win. Ironically, the trial went particularly well. Even the press began to question why I was being prosecuted. Witnesses called by the government supported me rather than the government. Each day acquittal seemed more certain.

The day the jury was to consider my part of the case, 2 Corinthians 12 reappeared as the second reading at daily Mass. (For those of you who are not Catholic, the readings at daily Mass rotate in cycles every three years, which means there’s about a one-in-a-thousand chance of this coincidence.)

After weeks of delay and nine days of deliberations, the jury returned. It was now July of 1997. The first count was read, and the verdict was announced:


Pandemonium broke out. My daughters sobbed uncontrollably. I felt as though I would never breathe again. The phrase, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ran continuously through my mind.

I was ordered to forfeit more than $3 million in assets to the government. My law firm was declared a criminal enterprise, and I was named the leader. Even though we were considered first offenders, my client and I each received sentences of ten years and one month—without benefit of parole. I was determined to appeal and pursue a reversal of this unjust verdict.

I was ordered to report to prison while my case was on appeal, and so I did on December 29, 1997. My service as a deacon was over. My law firm was dismantled. I agreed to suspend my law license. My assets not consumed in the legal battle would soon be turned over to the gleeful prosecutors.

My arrival at prison as a voluntary “self-surrender” was the worst day of my life. As I entered the prison compound at a Pensacola Navy base, everyone stared at me, the new “fish.” Within minutes, I was stripped naked, processed, and issued a fluorescent orange, one-piece, pocketless jumpsuit and oversized slip-on canvas shoes. No underwear. No belt. No shoelaces or socks

As a middle-aged, white, overweight lawyer who resembled a forlorn, glow-in-the-dark pumpkin, I stuck out like a sore thumb among the mainly young, tattooed black and Hispanic drug dealers who made up eighty-five percent of the prison population.

Until I was an adult, I never experienced real suffering, and I never grappled with the reasons suffering exists. As I began to understand suffering, I began to see some theological validity in the explanation I had always been given about penance, i.e., that it’s a way of making reparation for one’s sins.

However, I believe there is another compelling reason for practicing ritual penance. Eventually, suffering will come to each of us. It may be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, social, or unique to our own particular circumstances. But, it comes and it is essential to our discovery and experience of God.

Within the minimum-security institution, we lived eight-to-ten men in dorm rooms designed for two Navy flight cadets during the Second World War. The original heating and air conditioning systems were still in use, endlessly re-circulating the same stale air. Our restrooms were always filthy. The food was barely edible. Shakedowns and searches were frequent. Accusatory questions were a daily event.

“Surrender” became my daily mantra. I began to contemplate one of Christianity’s great paradoxes — Though Christ is the resurrected and victorious Lord, Christians are called to selfless lives of sacrifice, good works, endurance, faith, and courage.

I became a modern-day ascetic. In place of all activities, except hard work and strenuous workouts, I substituted praying, meditating and reading. Instead of being angry with God, I embraced my fate. At times, this was overwhelmingly difficult.

Then the unthinkable happened. A year and a half after my original verdict, I lost every issue in the court of appeals! The three-judge panel rubber-stamped my conviction and sentence.

More than ever, I felt the desolation of God’s apparent abandonment. For days, I was in a trance-like state. Prayer was impossible.

I resigned myself to prison for eight more years, while my attorneys prepared an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. I knew the odds of getting a hearing were about one in eighty thousand. My choices were either to despair or to surrender even more fully.

My prayer morphed from desperate pleas for a miraculous rescue to calm requests for acceptance and peace.

And then, a miracle happened.

The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear my case.

I was overcome with joy. I laughed and cried, and for the first time in months, I felt a real surge of hope. Then, I prepared to wait once again, knowing it could still be months before anything happened.

Then came a stunning event!

The trial judge who had ruled against me in every controversy in my case ordered that I be released from prison immediately! At 3:30 P.M. on April 27, 2000, I was prisoner No. 25306-034. At 3:45, I was, at least temporarily, Carl W. Cleveland, a free man.

After 840 days in hell, I took nothing with me except the workout shorts and T-shirt I was wearing. My family and I embraced, and shouted and cried in exultation!

Within hours of the announcement, I was home, in my own bed, with my precious wife.

Carl Cleveland's homecoming party in
April 2000. (The Jubilee Year!)

Awaking the next morning at sunrise, I felt as if I were in the Garden of Eden as I stood on my patio. I went to Mass to thank God for restoring my life.

My case was argued in the United States Supreme Court on October 10, 2000. A decision was expected in three to nine months.

On Election Day, November 7, 2000 — a mere twenty-eight days after my release — the Supreme Court unanimously reversed my conviction in the quickest decision in U.S. history.

On Valentine’s Day 2001, my case finally made its way back to the trial court for formal implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision.

My personal agony in the garden, scourging at the pillar, crowning with thorns and crucifixion formally ended almost four years after my trial began in May 1997.

As St. Paul suggested, it is through suffering that we truly discover God and His miraculous powers. God’s grace is enough for us in all of life’s trials.


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 God’s healing grace.Order it by clicking the book cover to your right.

Copyright © 2002 Ascension Press

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