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Md. Priest May Face Criminal Probe

May 20, 2002 | The Washington Post

Letters sent by Catholic Church officials to Baltimore prosecutors in 1998 contain allegations of possible felony child abuse and could fuel a new criminal investigation of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, a source familiar with the letters said yesterday.

Blackwell is recovering from gunshot wounds he received last week after a confrontation with a former parishioner, Dontee D. Stokes, 26. Stokes accused the priest of molesting him repeatedly over a three-year period that ended in 1993. Stokes allegedly shot Blackwell, 56, after the priest spurned his request for an apology. Stokes has been charged with attempted murder and has been released on bond.

The violent encounter on a West Baltimore street has focused fresh scrutiny on the past actions of several Baltimore priests and occurred just as a scandal in Boston was forcing the Catholic Church to reexamine its treatment of sexual abuse victims.

P. McEvoy Cromwell, a Baltimore lawyer who heads the Archdiocese of Baltimore's independent review board, said, "In the climate of publicity that exists, people who have been abused in the past see they're not going to be lonely figures crying in the wilderness, thinking that there is nobody who believes them."

The state's attorney's office in Baltimore recently received four new reports of abuse by priests, and the church review panel has also noticed a surge in sexual abuse allegations.

Although no criminal charges were filed against Blackwell as a result of Stokes's allegations in 1993, church leaders curtailed the priest's work with young males, and Blackwell moved from the rectory of St. Edward Catholic Church.

Blackwell, who was released from the hospital Saturday, did not respond to a telephone message left yesterday at his home. He has denied abusing Stokes, according to documents released by Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore.

Now Blackwell could be forced to confront allegations by a second man outlined in two 1998 letters, copies of which the archdiocese faxed to Baltimore prosecutors Friday. It is unclear whether prosecutors received the original letters in 1998 and, if so, what was done.

"We plan to contact police tomorrow to see if anyone has any recollection of this matter," Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office said yesterday. Burns said there is no current investigation of Blackwell by her office.

A source familiar with the letters said they describe abuse that occurred more than 30 years ago and involve a man who has since moved across the country. The source said the allegations contained in the letter seem to constitute a possible felony offense, which would not be subject to a statute of limitations in Maryland.

The timing of the letters, mailed in September and October 1998, coincides with Blackwell's admission to church officials that he had engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor years earlier -- an admission that prompted the archdiocese to dismiss him from his pastoral duties. The source said the second letter is similar to the first but added an address to aid in any investigation.

The new details about allegations against Blackwell emerged as members of Baltimore's Catholic community, especially its African American parishioners, prayed for guidance on how to deal with the growing scandal.

St. Bernadine, Baltimore's largest African American parish, is also the parish of Blackwell's family members and was the parish to which Blackwell was first assigned as a youth minister after he was ordained in 1974.

The Rev. John Delclos, assistant pastor of St. Bernadine, addressed Blackwell's shooting and the sex abuse allegations at yesterday's 11:30 a.m. service.

"I turned on the national news the other day, and the first five items were about our church, and none of it was good," Delclos told the more than 400 parishioners.

"But God is going to bless Maurice, Dontee and Cardinal Keeler," Delclos said, addressing a congregation that included Stokes's grandparents and other family members.

"May we stay focused on Jesus during these times of confusion, we pray thee, O Lord," Delclos said.

"We are praying for everybody. I am not judging anybody," Delclos said afterward. "What is worse than whatever happened is all of us judging. We have families on both sides. It is very upsetting."

Charles P. Stokes, Dontee Stokes's grandfather, said after the service that Keeler -- who Charles Stokes said visited him Friday to apologize -- has scheduled a meeting this week with Dontee Stokes and his mother, Tamara Stokes. Charles Stokes said he could not disclose the date or time of the meeting.

Tamara Stokes, who is also a member at St. Bernadine, did not attend yesterday's services. Her father said she was tired after a long week.

Although Dontee Stokes, who is under house arrest, is unable to attend church services, Charles Stokes said he and his grandson pray several times a day.

Bertha Stokes, Dontee Stokes's grandmother, said she believes the shooting has brought about an "awakening" in the church.

"There is nothing wrong with the message of the Catholic church, just with some of the messengers," Charles Stokes said.

Other parishioners greeted the Stokes family warmly yesterday, though some questioned the attention being concentrated on Blackwell.

"This stuff has been going on in the church for years. Why is all of the focus on Father Blackwell?" asked Donald Marshall, 68, as he passed out weekly bulletins to people arriving for Mass.

Marshall, a neighbor of Blackwell's, said that before being shot, Blackwell had come to terms with whatever had happened in his past. "He was humbled by the incident, but he was still outspoken on issues," he said.

Nathaniel Kelly, 69, who has been a member of St. Bernadine for more than three decades, said the attention may help the church in the long run.

"I think this issue is going to make the Catholic church take a serious look at itself," said Kelly, who also served as an usher during the service.

Charles Stokes said he is "optimistic. It is going to be all right." He added that his greatest concern now is how to pay his grandson's legal bills.

Burns, the spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said investigators have been meeting periodically with the archdiocese to discuss allegations against other priests in Baltimore. In the past two months, prosecutors have received four complaints involving five alleged victims, Burns said. The most recent alleged episode occurred in 1974, she said.

The head of the Baltimore archdiocese's independent board that reviews child abuse allegations said it has been inundated with claims of child abuse by priests in the last two months.

Cromwell said the intense national focus on the issue of abuse by Catholic priests is probably behind the influx in cases, including 12 new cases in the Archdiocese of Baltimore since April. He said the cases involve decades-old allegations about priests who have long since been transferred out of parish work or who have since died.

The panel has reviewed roughly 76 cases of alleged child abuse by priests since 1993, and more than half of the claims were found to be credible. In most cases, Cromwell said, the priests were removed from positions in parishes where they would have contact with children. Seven of the cases resulted in criminal charges.

The panel made headlines in 1994 after members criticized Keeler's decision to return Blackwell to St. Edward Church after Dontee Stokes made his initial abuse allegations in 1993.

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