Shooting suspect cites priest's abuse

A 26-year-old man charged with shooting a Roman Catholic priest he says molested him years ago walked into a Northwest Baltimore church service hours after the assault, came forward to seek salvation and later confessed, the pastor said last night.

Dontee D. Stokes, who alleged in 1993 that the Rev. Maurice Blackwell had fondled him over a three-year period, was on suicide watch in city jail last night as the Catholic Church sex scandal took a violent turn. Stokes faces an initial appearance today in District Court.

Blackwell, 56, was listed in serious but stable condition last night at Maryland Shock Trauma Center after suffering gunshot wounds Monday to his hand and side from a large-caliber handgun.

Police said Stokes told them he shot Blackwell because the priest rebuffed his demand for an apology over the alleged sexual assault, which friends and relatives say torments Stokes.

"That's all he wanted," said Tiffani Taft, 22, his fiancee.

The shooting shocked relatives of the suspect and friends of the priest, who has been on involuntary leave from St. Edward's Catholic Church in West Baltimore since 1998 after admitting to a sexual liaison with another minor two decades earlier.

The incident is just the latest involving Blackwell, who was temporarily removed from his West Baltimore parish after Stokes' allegations surfaced in 1993.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, emerging from a previously scheduled "listening session" with Baltimore Archdiocese priests about the sexual abuse crisis, said he and his priests prayed for Blackwell, "that the Lord be with him, to give him strength," as well as for all victims of molestation by clergy.

"I am appalled that another act of violence has occurred in the city of Baltimore and that tragedy touches a person I have known personally," Keeler said. He refused to answer specific questions about Blackwell's past, referring them to his spokesman.

Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the shooting "something we've feared for some time."

"We feel badly for both the priest and for the young man," she said. "We are grateful that he had the strength to turn himself in to the police. We hope the priest recovers quickly."

This is the second violent outgrowth of the clergy sex scandal. A priest from the Diocese of Cleveland, the Rev. Don Rooney, committed suicide April 4 after the disclosure of an abuse allegation involving a girl in 1980.

Keeler said he knew Blackwell, though "not well."

"I know that he was much beloved by people in the parish and had a warm and outgoing personality," Keeler said.

What pushed Stokes to shoot Blackwell nine years after he made his allegations is not clear. Relatives and friends said Stokes had been suffering from depression and threatened suicide. His mother, Tamara Stokes, said he might have snapped amid the deluge of reports about the sexual misconduct of clergy across the nation.

Police said Stokes left his house in the 1200 block of Mount Royal Terrace on Monday evening to meet his fiancee for a meal at her workplace. Stokes had a .357-caliber Magnum revolver with him, stuffed in a duffel bag.

As he drove to meet his fiancee, police said, Stokes passed Blackwell talking with another man outside his rowhouse in the 700 block of Reservoir St. Stokes drove by Blackwell once, then circled back and began speaking to the priest through his open passenger window, police said.

"Mr. Blackwell did not show any interest in speaking with [the] victim and after several attempts Mr. Stokes states that he doesn't know what came over him," police wrote in documents charging Stokes with attempted murder.

Stokes told detectives that he "wanted an apology," police said, and did not receive one.

Stokes removed his revolver from a holster in the bag and fired three shots at Blackwell through his window at close range, police said. Stokes then drove to a vacant house in the 4800 block of Greenspring Ave. and hid the gun, which police said they later recovered, missing three rounds.

Later that night, Stokes walked into a service at Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church in Park Heights, with the Rev. R. Lee Johnson, pastor of the nearby Brown's Memorial Baptist Church, presiding.

When Johnson asked "if there was any person in the building who desired to dedicate their life to the Lord," Stokes walked down the aisle to the front, where church members prayed over him. After the service, Stokes asked to speak to Johnson privately.

"He told me he had done something wrong, that he had shot a man and, realizing what he had done, he wanted to confess and give himself over to the police," Johnson said.

Despite well-publicized charges levied against Blackwell since 1993, parishioners and neighbors found it hard to believe that he had done anything wrong.

Andre Brown, 45, a former parishioner who credits Blackwell with straightening out his 7- year-old daughter two decades ago, said the priest did not "seem like the type of person" who would harm anyone. "I trusted my daughter with him."

"He's just a nice man," said Thelma Carter, 66, a neighbor and Baptist, who recalled how Blackwell attended the funeral of her 39-year-old son seven years ago and spoke about how wonderful he had been.

The parishioners of St. Edward's overwhelmingly supported Blackwell, demanding his return both times he was removed from the parish. Many expressed the sentiment that Blackwell was an inspired spiritual leader, but there was also an appreciation that he was a rarity in the American Catholic Church: a black pastor leading a black parish.

Blackwell was ordained in 1974, the second African-American to be made a priest in the Archdiocese Of Baltimore. The first had been ordained just a week before.

He was first assigned to St. Bernardine, an African-American parish in West Baltimore. Just three years later, he was appointed the first black priest from the archdiocese to pastor a parish, St. Edward's.

At St. Edward's, he is credited with revitalizing the parish, weaving African-American cultural traditions with Roman Catholic ritual, and more than doubling the size of the congregation.

So, it was little surprise that when the first allegation arose in 1993, the parish rose to defend him and expressed outrage that the archdiocese would remove its beloved pastor.

Stokes told police that Blackwell fondled him during Bible study sessions at the church.

While authorities investigated, the archdiocese sent Blackwell to the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., a prominent psychiatric treatment center for treating sexual abuse by clergy.

No charges were filed. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday in a statement: "The victim's allegation could not be corroborated, and the suspect denied the allegation. In October 1993, the state's attorney's office chose not to file fourth-degree sex offense charges against Father Blackwell."

After Blackwell completed his three-month stay at the institute, Keeler - then archbishop of Baltimore - personally approved the priest's return on the conditions that he no longer counsel young men and that he not live in the parish rectory.

At that time, a panel appointed by Keeler to review the child abuse cases in the archdiocese criticized his decision, noting that a team the archbishop had assembled to study Blackwell's case found the accusations against him "consistent and credible." The youth also took and passed two polygraph tests, the panel noted.

In a letter to Keeler, the panel said: "We believe the return of Father Blackwell to the parish - even under protective constraints - constituted an unacceptable risk."

Keeler, in a written response, noted that an evaluation showed "no clinical evidence of pedophilia or of any syndrome which might indicate him to be a threat to minors," adding that the panel made its report without the benefit of seeing Blackwell's confidential evaluation from the Institute of Living. "Nor did you have the benefit of meeting with Father Blackwell personally or knowing of the support system which awaited him," he wrote.

Keeler repeated yesterday his assertion that the independent panel did not have all the data he had in making his decision to return Blackwell to ministry.

"Let me just say that they ... made their opinion, but they didn't have all the information available that I had," he said. Raymond P. Kempisty, a spokesman for Keeler, acknowledged that the information Keeler was referring to was the psychiatric evaluation, which supported Blackwell's return to ministry.

A second allegation against Blackwell surfaced in 1998 - that he had abused another minor over the course of a five-year homosexual relationship that ended 20 years earlier. When confronted, Blackwell admitted to the affair and was placed on leave, his faculties to celebrate Mass and other sacraments suspended.

Since then, he has been executive director of Maryland One Church-One Addict, an interfaith program that encourages congregations to adopt recovering addicts.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading