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Haunted by Wounds of the Church

Jun 3, 2002 | The Washington Post

He remembers idolizing Maurice J. Blackwell, a smooth-talking Catholic seminarian who wore an Afro and a dashiki and was everything he wanted to be: self-assured, proud and important.

"I was always in awe of him, a real black priest just being himself," the man said. "Everyone was hypnotized by him. They loved him. He had this thing about him."

It was the late 1960s, and the man -- then 14 or 15 years old -- told no one about the secret side of his friendship with the young priest in training.

"It's just between us," he said Blackwell told him, as caresses and hugs progressed into sexual contact.

"I was stuck there in the middle of the night," the man said. "I knew it wasn't supposed to be, but I didn't know what to do. Once it happened, what do I do? Who would I tell?"

The sexual liaison between a charismatic young priest and the teenager who had sought sanctuary from a troubled home life would go on for a decade at various Baltimore parish rectories where the priest lived, the man said. Twenty years afterward -- and four years after Blackwell reportedly acknowledged the liaison -- the emotional toll it took was apparent during a lengthy interview at the man's Louisiana apartment.

"I felt like I lived a lie all my life," said the man, now 47, whose name is being withheld by The Washington Post because he says he is the victim of sexual abuse. "I always had this dark thing behind me that I couldn't tell. I never knew I wasn't the only one."

Recent months have been particularly trying, with allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests emerging from parishes across the nation. Then came the news last month that Blackwell had been shot in Baltimore -- allegedly by Dontee D. Stokes, who says he, too, was sexually abused by the priest.

"I first thought, 'Maybe he's dead,' " the Louisiana man said during the interview in his two-bedroom apartment. "They should have killed him."

Blackwell survived the shooting and remains a Catholic priest, although he was relieved of parish duties in 1998.

Since the shooting, what the man endured in Baltimore has invaded his life again. Those who know what happened -- a relative few -- have called to console him. On a recent Sunday morning, his sister left a message on his answering machine: "You haven't done anything wrong."

But he says his faith in God has been shaken.

"I'm sure there may be something" -- a higher being -- "but whatever it is, it didn't help me," he said. "I'm angry because I wanted to believe in the Catholic Church like everybody else does. . . . I don't know if I have the strength to believe anymore or if I ever had it. I think it's for weak people. I think [Blackwell] just ruined a lot of things for me."

Reporters have come to his door and called repeatedly, tipped to his existence by a police report he filed in 1998. He admires, but doesn't understand, how others who have been abused can allow their images and names to be used.

No matter how much empathy people show, he said, "they wouldn't want you around their children."

The tears come often and with little warning to this man who has two sons and three ex-wives. He has served in the Coast Guard and has spied on gamblers as a senior security official for casinos in Nevada and Louisiana. In the Coast Guard, he was on a detail guarding the Queen of England. Later, in his casino security work, he came face-to-face with the likes of Michael Jordan, Diana Ross, Joe Namath and Charles Barkley.

In many ways, his life has been good, he said. But his marriages were spoiled by his inability to trust.

His memories of Baltimore are vivid: of himself as an impressionable teenager at Clifton Park Junior High School, meeting Blackwell for the first time. Blackwell homed in on him, the man said, offering a helping hand.

The man said he had been physically abused by his mother and stepfather, who sometimes tied him up and beat him with extension cords. On those evenings, Blackwell would rescue him and take him places. The man said he often stayed overnight with Blackwell at St. Mary's Seminary and various rectories where Blackwell was assigned. There, they kissed, fondled and had oral sex, he said.

The sexual contact continued, he told church officials and police in 1998, until he was about 26. These details are included in a letter sent by the Rev. J. Bruce Jarboe, director of clergy personnel for the Baltimore Archdiocese, to the state's attorney's office in 1998. In a follow-up letter sent less than a month later, Jarboe wrote that Blackwell, then a priest, acknowledged that "he engaged in a number of sexual encounters with [the man] between 1971 and 1975."

The man said that each time he tried to end the liaison, Blackwell "always had a way of making me come back."

When the man dropped out of high school, Blackwell wrote a letter of recommendation for him to the Coast Guard, where the man served from 1972 to 1977.

"Overall, he's really done a lot of good things," the man said. "But he's also done a lot of evil."

Finally, the man left Baltimore in an attempt to put Blackwell out of his life.

"I told him: 'You stay in the East. I'll stay in the West,' " the man said to Blackwell after settling in Las Vegas.

Blackwell occasionally called and wrote, he said. The last time the two spoke was sometime after 1993. In that telephone conversation, the man recalled, Blackwell asked what he would say if questioned about their relationship. He said he promised not to tell.

"I wanted to keep it a secret," he said.

But he broke his silence in 1998 after a friend convinced him that by doing so, he could keep the same thing from happening to his youngest son, who was born in 1996. He has not seen the child in years because he is estranged from the mother.

Representatives of the Baltimore Archdiocese and city police went to Las Vegas in 1998 to listen to his account, he said. When police pressed the man to return to Baltimore to make the case for them and testify, he declined, saying it would be too painful.

The police "wanted me to do everything," he said.

The man admits to being angry these days -- sometimes at himself for not stopping the abuse earlier, sometimes at Blackwell and sometimes at the Catholic Church, which he says should have known what was happening.

"They only came out to Vegas to help them get rid of [Blackwell] then . . . to help themselves," he said. "They knew they had to do damage control. Their big offer of helping me was to offer me therapy. They didn't help me with my bills. Therapy just means I have to relive it over and over and over."

Solace, for him, comes on the golf course, smoking a good cigar.

While on the course, "I don't have any thoughts but golf," he said. "No trouble with work. No trouble with the past."

He intends to slam the door on this segment of his life once media attention turns elsewhere. If the church offered money, he would surely take it, he said, adding that even $1 million could never compensate him for what he lost.

"What are they going to do for me?" he asked. "What can they do for me? I feel like there's nothing but sharks out there, and I have to look out for myself."

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