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Making a Priest Pay

May 22, 2002 | Time Magazine

What seems to have made Dontee Stokes snap was the news reports. Stokes, 26, was a doting father and an employee in good standing at Superman's Barbershop in Baltimore, Md. The TV runs constantly at Superman's, and Stokes was clearly troubled about the Roman Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandals. "He made comments that the priests should be punished," says Superman's co-owner Damon Fisher. "We were watching last week, and he said, 'It's not fair.'" Last Monday Stokes drove to the home of the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, who had baptized him, and — after reportedly requesting but not getting an apology for an act allegedly committed nine years ago — shot the priest with a .357 Smith & Wesson.

When America's Catholic bishops meet in June, their much anticipated national sex-abuse guidelines will doubtless feature review panels, led by laypeople, that already exist in many dioceses. Most Americans, underwhelmed by the clergy's self-policing, will welcome this. But the message sent by the troubled Stokes, who stands accused of attempted murder after confessing to shooting Blackwell three times, is this: If you do set up lay boards, for God's sake, listen to them. Clerics and laypeople alike are also praying that the shooting — along with the apparent suicide last week of the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, a Bridgeport, Conn., priest accused of sex abuse — foreshadows no trend.

In August 1993, Stokes, then 17, told a therapist that Blackwell had been fondling him for three years during Bible study at St. Edward Church. The charge made news: the vastly popular Blackwell was the first African American to serve as pastor of a Catholic church in Baltimore, tending a thriving, mostly black congregation at St. Edward. The boy passed two police lie-detector tests, but lacking a witness or physical evidence, the state dropped the case. And the church backed its priest, at least in public. Privately, according to Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the Maryland state's attorney, in 1993 "the archdiocese acknowledged that there was reason to believe that sexual abuse had occurred." Blackwell moved from the church residency into the nearby home of his mother, and was made to give up his youth ministry. But after a three-month stint at the Institute of Living, a Connecticut facility that treats many priestly abusers, he was reinstated as the leader of St. Edward.

This shocked the diocese's nine-person lay review panel. It wrote Baltimore's William Cardinal Keeler that "the return of Father Blackwell — even under protective constraints — constituted an unacceptable risk. All parish ministry positions...potentially provide access to children." Says P. McEvoy Cromwell, still the board's chairman: "It's the only case that we saw fit to write a letter for."

Cardinal Keeler's reply leaned heavily on the fact that the board had not seen a psychiatrist's "confidential report" offering assurances that Blackwell was no risk for "any...syndrome which might indicate him to be a threat to minors." Nor, Cardinal Keeler continued, "did you have the benefit of meeting with Father Blackwell personally or knowing of the support system that awaited him." He described Blackwell as "humbled" at their encounters. He congratulated the board on keeping the archdiocese "open and accountable"--but rejected its advice.

"The nuns knew about it, the priests knew about it," Tamara Stokes said on local television last week about the alleged abuse of her son, but "no one looked at his plea." Stokes' family left St. Edward. He dropped out of high school and suffered depression. In the mid-'90s he attempted suicide. He was convinced, says his employer Fisher, that people in the church wanted "to make him feel that it was his fault."

Then, in 1998, Blackwell admitted to having a five-year relationship with a male minor before he was ordained. The archdiocese suspended him and forbade him to celebrate the sacraments. Stokes' defense attorneys have promised to produce a Blackwell "victim" this week.

The shot priest has been released from the hospital. Stokes is out of jail on $150,000 bail but faces charges not only of attempted murder but also of handgun violations. After the shooting, Cardinal Keeler described the situation as "exquisitely painful." Writing in the Baltimore Sun, he admitted that Blackwell was "credibly accused of abuse" in 1993, and "in light of what has occurred and what was revealed in 1998, I would not make the same decision today." On Friday he forced the retirement of a priest accused of molestation 20 years ago. And one more thing — late Saturday night, Keeler finally gave Tamara Stokes the apology her son had been awaiting for so long.

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