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A Trailblazing Priest With a Secret Past

May 17, 2002 | The Washington Post

Hope and pride coursed through the capacity crowd that gathered in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore on a sunny Saturday in 1974 to witness the ordination of Maurice J. Blackwell. The ceremony had an unusual air of importance, because until that year the city had never had an African American priest.

But as Blackwell bowed his head to receive a hands-on blessing from Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, the newly minted priest was guarding a secret. While studying to devote his life to God, he had carried on a lengthy sexual relationship with a teenage boy.

Blackwell later confessed to the relationship -- which he said occurred before his ordination -- but not until a quarter-century had passed. For the moment, attention was focused on him as one of the two new black priests who had come to Baltimore that spring to lead the city's large African American parishes.

Blackwell was "carrying the whole hope and dreams of a whole race of people on his shoulders," recalled one of his seminary classmates, the Rev. Edward P. Kenny, a Baltimore priest. "Just so much hope was placed on him, not just in the African American community. Everyone was so excited to see the priesthood being integrated."

On Monday, Blackwell was shot three times in the arm and hip, allegedly by a former parishioner who said he, too, had been molested by the cleric while a minor. Blackwell remained in fair condition yesterday at a Baltimore hospital and has not made any public comments about the accusations that derailed his once-promising career.

The suspect, Dontee Stokes, 26, who Wednesday was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, will appear in court this afternoon for another bond hearing.

The late 1960s and the early 1970s were a heady yet challenging time for a black man to study for the priesthood anywhere, but especially in Baltimore, said the Rev. Donald A. Sterling, who was ordained by the Roman Catholic Church as the city's first African American priest a few weeks before Blackwell's ordination.

"I think I'd be safe to say we both felt the pressures from the perspective of race," Sterling said yesterday. "There were two sides to that. The diocese had never ordained a black man before us; that's a sad history from our point of view. On the other hand, people were extremely proud a color bar had been broken."

Blackwell's first assignment was as youth minister of St. Bernadine Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore, where he served for five years and was popular with teenagers who congregated in his office to talk about school, black politics and life on the street.

Former colleagues and parishioners described Blackwell as a hip young priest. After he was transferred to St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in 1979, he started driving a white BMW with vanity license plates reading "PRIEST." He once let a Baltimore filmmaker shoot a movie trailer in the church, featuring a cameo by Blackwell.

"He was real cool, real nice," said Cindy Hearn, 25, a college student who lives in Blackwell's neighborhood. "He didn't talk like a priest or a father or a reverend. It was like talking to an everyday Joe. He was on your level."

Several former colleagues and acquaintances said they were not aware of any sexual misconduct involving Blackwell during his time in the seminary or in his early years as a priest.

In 1993, that changed. Stokes, then 17, told a counselor that the priest had molested him on numerous occasions during the previous three years in the St. Edward church office, according to a police report.

Blackwell denied the allegations, and no criminal charges were filed. But authorities said they believed Stokes, noting that he passed two lie detector tests. An independent lay panel appointed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore also investigated and concluded that the youth's accusations were credible, but its findings were overruled by Cardinal William H. Keeler.

The archdiocese ordered Blackwell to undergo counseling but allowed him to remain in his job at St. Edward. Officials said he volunteered to move from the church rectory into his family home. Many of his parishioners stood firmly behind him, posting ribbons of support outside the church during the investigation.

Five years later, Blackwell's past confronted him again. In 1998, a man came forward and told the archdiocese that the priest had sexually abused him while he was a teenager in the early 1970s.

This time, Blackwell admitted the wrongdoing. Church officials stripped him of his duties and forbade him to perform Mass or other sacraments in public, though he was allowed to keep his title as a priest.

News of Blackwell's transgressions were widely reported in Baltimore, but he stayed in the city and remained popular with many former parishioners and supporters. He landed a job as state director of a nonprofit group called One Church-One Addict Inc., which organizes drug rehabilitation programs based in churches across Maryland.

He ran the program out of his family's house in a crumbling neighborhood of brownstones on Reservoir Street in West Baltimore. A tattered red-and-white canopy and a black wrought-iron door mark the front entrance to his home.

Despite his troubled past, Blackwell has enjoyed the support of many local and state officials in his new job.

Since 1997, the state has awarded $50,000 in grants to finance chapters in five communities. In June 2000, the organization gave Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) an award of appreciation, presented by Blackwell at a ceremony in Catonsville.

Townsend, who is running for governor, knew nothing about Blackwell's past when she was given the award, said her campaign spokesman, Michael Morrill. The ceremony took place two years after most of Blackwell's powers as a priest were removed.

Last year, the governor's Office of Crime Control and Public Safety awarded a $2,000 grant directly to Blackwell, who had requested the money on behalf of One Church-One Addict to help finance an anti-drug campaign.

Blackwell was awarded the money in part to organize an anti-drug poster design contest that hoped to attract entries from 300 schoolchildren, according to documents filed as part of the grant application.

Yesterday, state officials said they were reviewing the grant, especially in light of Blackwell's proposal to work with children.

"We'll look very, very closely at how the money was spent and what activities it was used for," said Gregory Leyko, program director for the agency that approved the grant. "Absolutely, it's a cause for concern."


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