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Spotlight Report

Baltimore panel sharply dissented on priest's return

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 5/16/2002

An exchange of letters between Cardinal William H. Keeler and a lay panel the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore created to review sexual misconduct cases shows there was a sharp difference of opinion over returning the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell to parish ministry after he was accused of repeatedly abusing a teenager in 1993.

''We believe the return of Father Blackwell to the parish - even under protective constraints - constituted an unacceptable risk,'' the nine-member Independent Review Board said in a letter dated March 16, 1994. The letter said archdiocesan investigators had found the teenager's allegations ''consistent and credible.''

Dontee Stokes, 26, was denied bail yesterday and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation. Police said he shot Blackwell outside the priest's Baltimore home Monday night after Blackwell refused to talk to him.

Stokes's mother, Tamara Stokes, said in a CNN interview that recent revelations in the press about clergy abuse had prompted her son to seek an apology from the priest.

Blackwell, 56, remained in serious condition yesterday. He was shot once in the left hand and twice in the hip.

In 1993, after Dontee Stokes went to the police, Keeler, then the archbishop of Baltimore, placed Blackwell on administrative leave. He sent the priest to the Institute of Living, a psychiatric treatment center in Hartford, while a pastoral response team from the archdiocese investigated Stokes's allegations that Blackwell had sexually abused him a number of times over three years. Blackwell denied the allegations. Police did not charge him in the case.

On the basis of the institute's confidential report and his own observations of Blackwell after three months of treatment, Keeler said in a letter to the review board that he was confident the priest could return, without danger to children, to St. Edward Parish, where he had spent 15 years and had been highly regarded.

''The first goal of our policies is to protect anyone from possible harm,'' the archbishop wrote. ''The same policies express the need to see that the rights of all parties are protected, including those of priests.''

Keeler told the review board that his decision was based on the fact there were no other allegations against Blackwell, the lack of corroboration of Stokes's charges, and a clinical evaluation that revealed no signs of pedophilia ''or any syndrome which might indicate him to be a threat to minors.'' Further, Keeler wrote, Blackwell was to continue in psychotherapy, meet regularly with archdiocesan staff, move out of the church rectory, and no longer have a youth ministry.

''The psychiatrist stated, `There is no indication which can be drawn from our clinical evaluation that Father Blackwell is a danger to young men in a sexually predatory fashion,''' Keeler told the review board, which did not have access to the clinic's report.

In 1998, Blackwell was accused of sexually abusing a minor over the course of a five-year homosexual relationship that had ended in 1978, before he was ordained. Blackwell acknowledged the relationship and was placed on leave again. His public privileges as a priest were lifted, and he now serves as director of Maryland One Church-One Addict, an interfaith program that encourages congregations to adopt recovering drug addicts.

Efforts to interview members of the Independent Review Board were unsuccessful yesterday. Its members, most of whom have served on the panel since its inception, said they were told to remain silent and refer reporters to the chairman, P. McEvoy Cromwell, a Baltimore lawyer. Cromwell did not return phone calls.

The panel was set up just months after Stokes made his allegations against Blackwell, but it was established as the Baltimore archdiocese was under pressure to be less secretive about its handling of sexual abuse cases involving priests. Between 1985 and 1993, six priests from the archdiocese were found to have abused children. Four resigned from the priesthood, and two were reassigned to duties that did not involve children.

At the time, A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest who spent 35 years in Baltimore and had Blackwell as a student at St. Mary's Roland Park Seminary, was calling for more openness. Yesterday, Sipe, now a psychotherapist and author of ''Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis,'' said the archdiocese's longtime policies and Keeler's attitudes helped to create the current situation.

''This young man [Stokes] was not listened to by the church, even when the cardinal's blue-ribbon panel said his allegations were credible,'' Sipe said. ''Yet the cardinal ingored it and ignored Blackwell's behavior for another five years before paying attention.

''Things are still handled very secretly and silently in Baltimore,'' he said, adding that ''revelation and self-criticism'' are not high on the cardinal's agenda.

Matt Lane, a spokesman for Keeler, said that the archdiocese was proud of its procedures for handling sexual abuse cases. The policies have been in place since the mid-1980s and were revised in 2000, he said. The archdiocese conducts an internal investigation of all credible allegations and then has its lay board review its actions and provide advice and feedback, Lane said.

In 1994, the feedback from the board was, by its own account, strong. ''We have delivered a slug of castor oil,'' the board wrote to Keeler, as it criticized his decision to reinstate Blackwell and urged the archdiocese to make public what it knew about its priests.

''We believe this kind of complete and candid disclosure is necessary to apprise parents (and even children) of the possible danger, to let potential informants know they are not going to be discounted, ... and to assure the Catholic and non-Catholic public at large of the integrity of the archdiocese's decision-making process,'' the letter said.

Mary Leonard, who can be reached at, reported from Washington.

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 5/16/2002.
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