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Strong Suspicions, Years of Silence

May 25, 2002 | The Washington Post

The Baltimore sex-crimes detective had listened as a 17-year-old boy told a convincing story about being molested by a priest. And he'd heard from others that the priest regularly took adolescents into the rectory, locking the door and drawing the blinds.

When the detective -- Frederick V. Roussey -- visited the church, he saw so many children going in and out of the priest's living quarters that he described it as a "playground." He urged prosecutors to intervene swiftly before "Father [Maurice J.] Blackwell molests another child while we stand by and do nothing."

It was not until 1998 -- five years after Roussey issued that warning -- that officials of the Archdiocese of Baltimore took definitive action to remove Blackwell from the parish. Neither Roussey's investigation nor Blackwell's subsequent admission of a sexual relationship with another teenage parishioner has prompted a criminal prosecution.

Though records show that almost no one doubted the teenager's story in 1993 -- not the detectives who saw him pass two polygraph tests, not the church officials who believed that he had been abused -- neither did anyone advocate the vigorous prosecution that someone less exalted than a priest might experience.

"The prosecutors felt there was a need for additional evidence or corroboration before an arrest could be made," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. "They felt the standard of proof for probable cause had not been met."

Specifically, she said, prosecutors wanted to determine whether there were other victims or eyewitnesses. But they could find none.

Repeated decisions by Baltimore prosecutors not to press criminal charges against Blackwell -- despite their strong suspicions in the first case and his admission in the second -- allowed him to avoid facing his accusers for almost a decade. That changed abruptly on May 10. Blackwell was talking to a neighbor on the sidewalk outside his West Baltimore home at dusk when a car pulled up and a young man confronted him. He demanded that Blackwell apologize for sexually abusing him.

When Blackwell ignored him, the man pulled out a handgun and fired three shots, wounding the priest in the hip and arm.

Several hours later, police arrested Dontee D. Stokes, 26, the person who had accused Blackwell of molesting him in 1993. Stokes's relatives said he snapped, out of frustration that his allegations had not been taken more seriously nine years earlier.

Stokes and his family were given the cold shoulder by fellow parishioners after the teenager filed his complaint with police in 1993, said Sister John Francis Schilling, Stokes's high-school English teacher and guidance counselor.

"He and his family were shunned and made to feel as if they were the guilty ones," Schilling said in an interview. "He passed two lie-detector tests; there was no reason not to believe him."

Schilling learned about the suspected abuse after the teenager confided in her that he had been molested by an older man. In addition to passing the polygraph tests, the teenager was consistent in describing how he had been groped and molested -- to her, to a youth minister, to a psychiatrist and to the police.

Though records show some church officials told prosecutors that they had "reason to believe" the youth had been sexually abused, the parish council at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church sided with Blackwell and a group of priests published letters of support for him in the archdiocese newspaper, the Catholic Review.

Schilling said that Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, decided to return Blackwell to his pastorate after three months of counseling because of pressure from the African American parishioners. Blackwell, who in 1974 became only the second black priest to be ordained in Baltimore, was popular and well regarded among many Catholics.

"I think he was under pressure from the parishioners, who were very supportive of [Blackwell]," Schilling said. "I'm sure the cardinal thought he was doing the right thing."

Documents show that church officials were aware of Blackwell's special status in Baltimore. At a meeting on Sept. 8, 1993, Richard O. Berndt, a lawyer representing the church, told prosecutors that the archdiocese "expects media coverage on this because Fr. B [Blackwell] is well-known in Afr-Amer community on west side," according to handwritten notes taken by Deputy State's Attorney Sharon A.H. May.

May's notes indicate that even though archdiocese officials did not doubt Stokes, they anticipated that it would be difficult to discipline or transfer the priest. They also feared he would hire a lawyer to fight such a move, according to law enforcement documents.

"Fr. B has [rights] under canon law," the notes said. "Fr. B may get canon lawyer and argue any removal from St. E," referring to St. Edward parish.

Prosecutors likewise were reluctant to move aggressively against the priest, records show, even though the lead prosecutor noted that Blackwell had "admitted [being] sexually involved w/young men in parish." Blackwell denied, however, being involved with Stokes or any other minor.

Detective Roussey first asked permission to interrogate Blackwell on Aug. 16, 1993, immediately after Roussey finished his first personal interview with Stokes. Roussey told prosecutors that he wanted to act "before [Blackwell] had time to tamper with witnesses and build an alibi," according to police records.

But the prosecutors denied the request, as well as two others from the detective over the next two weeks, citing a need for more evidence. Three times they told him to "just sit on it," according to the detective's notes.

"Priest known to prey on young boys," read the notes from an unidentified prosecutor's case file, dated Aug. 17. "Fred's trying to pressure me into letting him speak with the priest. . . . I reiterated no arrest and no talking to priest."

Baltimore police finally sat down with Blackwell on Sept. 7, a month after the investigation began.

The priest gave a brief statement in which he "denied that he was ever sexually involved with Dontee Stokes," according to a police report. Blackwell also offered to take a polygraph examination "to prove his innocence."

He changed his mind about the polygraph test. Five days later, he hired an attorney, who contacted police and told them he would not permit investigators to speak further with Blackwell or administer a polygraph, records show.

The investigation ended soon after that. On Sept. 24, prosecutors met with police and told them they had discussed the case with their boss, then-State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms. There would be no criminal charges, the prosecutors said. Unless other victims come forward, the case is closed.

Despite the reservations on all sides about Blackwell's conduct, the archdiocese allowed him to return to his duties as parish priest at St. Edward, but it banned him from youth ministry activities.

He would remain in charge of the parish for five more years, until another person came forward and accused the priest of molesting him and engaging in oral sex when he was a minor, in the 1960s and 1970s. This time, Blackwell admitted having sex with the boy.

The archdiocese then stripped Blackwell of most of his authority as a priest. But he again avoided criminal charges after the victim told police that he would refuse to testify because he could not bear to recount the abuse in court.

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