Keeler apologizes for abuse by priests

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Cardinal William H. Keeler has apologized for the first time to victims of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests and said he regrets his 1993 decision to return the Rev. Maurice Blackwell to his parish after an abuse allegation.

"I take full responsibility for the decision I made in 1993 given the facts and circumstances before me," the archbishop of Baltimore writes in an opinion piece published in today's editions of The Sun. "In light of what has occurred and of what was revealed in 1998, I would not make the same decision today."

Records of the 1993 case show that church and law enforcement officials believed the alleged victim had been molested. Blackwell was accused of molesting the teen but was never charged.

The Baltimore Archdiocese restored Blackwell to his position as pastor of St. Edward Church after he spent three months at a psychiatric facility for evaluation and treatment. He was removed from the church and suspended indefinitely in 1998 after admitting to a sexual relationship with a minor more than 20 years earlier.

Blackwell remains at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, recovering from gunshot wounds allegedly inflicted Monday night by Dontee D. Stokes, 26, who said he was molested by the priest in the 1993 case and was enraged because Blackwell never apologized.

Keeler has no plans to apologize personally to Stokes or his family, said Raymond P. Kempisty, the archdiocesan chancellor. But he did offer an apology for times when church leaders failed victims of sexual abuse by priests.

"We know that there have been painful breaches of trust, and have dedicated ourselves to seeking solace for victims and fair punishment for perpetrators, goals which we have pursued but have not always succeeded in achieving, for many years," Keeler wrote. "I apologize for instances in which our efforts have failed."

Keeler acknowledged in the article that the 1993 allegations against Blackwell were credible. He said that the young abuse victim "was offered treatment and counseling, and Father Blackwell was immediately placed on administrative leave and sent away for psychiatric and physical evaluation."

However, Stokes' family has said that he was not offered help.

Keeler noted that there was a "huge outcry" from parishioners at St. Edward, who demanded Blackwell's return. "Our pleas for other accusers to come forward received no response."

Keeler said he relied on the advice of therapists at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., where Blackwell was treated, who said in their report to the archdiocese that Blackwell was not "a danger to young men in a sexually predatory fashion."

Keeler decided to allow Blackwell, who maintained his innocence, to return to St. Edward, under certain conditions. Among them: He would move out of the rectory and live with his mother; he would not participate in ministry with young people; he would continue receiving psychological counseling and would meet regularly with a group of priests for supervision. Parish leaders were informed of the arrangement, and Blackwell was warned that if another incident arose, he would be fired.

Six months later, Keeler's decision to reinstate Blackwell was criticized by an Independent Review Board - composed of Catholic and non-Catholic lay persons - which wrote a letter to the archbishop outlining its position. Keeler defended his actions in a letter and published both, along with other letters supporting Blackwell, in The Catholic Review, the archdiocesan newspaper. Keeler noted that Blackwell was immediately removed once the 1998 allegation surfaced.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in St. Louis, said Keeler's statement was similar to those issued in recent months by other church leaders and that it suffered from the same problem of short-sightedness about the problem.

"I think most Catholics understand that this is not just a one-bad-apple problem at this point," he said. "I think he owes an apology to his review board, whose advice he rejected, and I think the review board should vow to resign publicly if their advice ever is not followed again."

Records in the 1993 case showed that while law enforcement and church officials believed that Stokes had been abused, investigators were unsuccessful in finding enough evidence to build a case that prosecutors thought they could win.

The city state's attorney's office received the case Aug. 9, 1993. On Sept. 24, law enforcement officials met and decided they would not press criminal charges against Blackwell. The decision was approved by then-State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms.

A chronology of the investigation shows investigators talked several times with representatives of the archdiocese, including a bishop, and to Blackwell, who denied having had sexual contact with Stokes, said Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

The records also show that Blackwell offered to take a polygraph test to prove his innocence, but that his private attorney advised him against it two weeks later, Burns said.

A source close to the investigation said records from a September meeting between law enforcement and archdiocese officials indicate Stokes passed two police polygraph tests, though he twice "missed" a question about whether anything more than touching had occurred between him and Blackwell.

"Archdiocese now has reason to believe SCA [sexual child abuse] has occurred," the records say, adding that an investigator believed further abuse had taken place, but Stokes did not confirm that.

At the meeting, an attorney for the archdiocese, Richard O. Berndt, told investigators: "We believe the child," the source said the records show.

In mid-August, investigators spoke to people who lived in Blackwell's neighborhood, but no one identified any additional victims. Investigators requested a list of children in the youth program at St. Edward and received four names. After four attempts to contact each child, they reached one girl who told them she had not been touched by Blackwell.

Investigators also talked to relatives of Stokes, who said they had a son who suspected that Blackwell "messed with other kids in the church." Records indicate the investigators did not talk to the young man.

Throughout the investigation, archdiocese officials appear to have been cooperative. On Sept. 8, law enforcement officials met with Bishop John H. Ricard (then an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore, now bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla.), two other priests, and two lawyers representing the archdiocese.

Burns confirmed that lead prosecutor Sharon H. May attended this meeting.

The source said that documents on the meeting show the archdiocese officials said they wanted Blackwell to have a psychological evaluation, and that they planned to "be supportive of the child and the parents" and to "keep them out of the line of fire."

Berndt said the archdiocese planned to inform the parishioners of the investigation and that there was a chance the church would remove Blackwell from St. Edward, the records show.

On Sept. 24, May met with investigators to discuss the case. They found Stokes' story consistent and believable. But because Stokes was the only youth to complain about Blackwell, and because no other witnesses surfaced and they had no medical evidence, they decided to close the case, the records show.

Sun staff writer Gail Gibson contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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