May 15, 2002

A Roman Catholic priest was shot outside his Baltimore home Monday night by a man who had accused the priest of fondling him nine years ago in his church office, police said yesterday. It is apparently the first incident of violence against a priest associated with the church's growing sex abuse scandal.

Dontee D. Stokes, 26, surrendered to police Monday night, saying that he shot the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell after the priest refused to talk to him, according to charging documents filed in court.

Stokes had filed a police complaint in 1993 alleging that Blackwell had fondled him over a period of three years, a charge the Baltimore archdiocese investigated and found "not credible," though that finding was later disputed by a church-appointed review board. No criminal charges were filed against the priest as a result of the complaint.

But Blackwell, 56, a popular figure in his neighborhood, was listed in serious but stable condition yesterday. He has been on administrative leave from the church since 1998, when he admitted to having had a sexual relationship with another person, a minor, more than 20 years earlier. In recent years, Blackwell has run a drug rehabilitation program that has received grants from the state of Maryland.

The shooting stunned Catholic Church officials who for months have been beset by allegations of child sexual abuse by priests. Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, meeting yesterday with 165 priests in the city to talk about the scandal, said he was appalled by the shooting and told reporters that he was unsure whether it signaled a new phase of danger for the clergy.

"This is a new experience for all of us," Keeler said, "and what I just sense is an exquisite quality of pain here . . . a pain that I hope also brings purification so that we take the proper steps to avoid ever having this kind of situation arise again."

Stokes's grandfather, Charles Stokes, said that before shooting the priest, his grandson had demanded that Blackwell apologize for abusing him. The grandfather said that Blackwell refused.

The shooting, apparently the first involving a priest accused of sex abuse, alarmed advocates for victims.

"It's very, very unusual," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. "It's the kind of thing we have feared and dreaded."

Dontee Stokes, a barber who lives a few blocks from Blackwell in central Baltimore, drove to the priest's home on Reservoir Street at 6 p.m. Monday, circling the block once before stopping, according to police. Blackwell was standing outside talking to a neighbor.

Stokes tried to talk to the priest, but Blackwell "did not show any interest in speaking with" Stokes, police said.

While still in the car, Stokes pulled a .357-caliber handgun from a black duffel bag and fired three shots, hitting Blackwell once in his left hand and twice near his left hip, police said. He then drove away.

The priest, who was lying in the street as police arrived, identified Stokes as the shooter and told officers where he lived, police said. Stokes surrendered at 11:45 p.m., took police to a tree where he had stowed his weapon and told officers he "doesn't know what came over him," according to police.

"The trauma of what happened to him finally just made him snap," Charles Stokes said. "The issue is that no one would listen to him -- the police department, the archdiocese, the social services department."

Dontee Stokes, who has no prior criminal record, was charged with attempted murder, first- and second-degree assault and handgun violations. He was being held without bond pending a hearing this morning.

In August 1993, when he was 17, Stokes filed a police report alleging that Blackwell had sexually abused him at the priest's parish church, St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore. As a result of the alleged abuse, the youth had gone to see a therapist, who notified the city's Department of Social Services.

The priest, Stokes told police at the time, invited him to his office after Bible study class on numerous occasions and fondled him.

"When the complainant would push away, the [priest] would raise his voice to the complainant and tell him to hug him back harder," according to the police report.

As a result of the allegation, which Blackwell denied, the archdiocese placed him on leave and sent him for a three-month psychological evaluation at the Institute for Living in Hartford, Conn., said Ray Kempisty, spokesman for the archdiocese.

The archdiocese conducted an investigation and found the allegation "not credible," Kempisty said.

Keeler approved Blackwell's return to the parish, where he had been pastor since 1979. But a panel of laypersons appointed by Keeler concluded after its investigation that Blackwell "should not have been reassigned to parish ministry."

The board, which included business executives, lawyers and children's advocates, found that the allegation was "consistent and credible" and that allowing Blackwell to return to the parish "constituted an unacceptable risk."

Asked about the board's conclusion, which followed his decision to reinstate Backwell, Keeler said yesterday that the board subsequently realized that "they didn't have all the information available that I had. . . . I think it's a wonderful demonstration of the independence" the board has.

The information to which Keeler referred was the "mental health evaluation," Kempisty said. That evaluation, he added, was favorable to Blackwell and supported his return to ministry. Keeler apparently took no action against Blackwell after the board issued its report.

But four years later, after a second person came forward with a complaint, the archdiocese placed Blackwell on administrative leave. He admitted to having had a sexual relationship with the man, then a minor, two decades earlier.

Blackwell told church officials that the relationship had ended before he was ordained in the Baltimore Archdiocese in 1974.

Kempisty said that in 1998, Keeler was "convinced that the allegations were true, and so Father Blackwell . . . was placed on administrative leave."

At that time, the archdiocese revoked his right to say Mass and perform other sacraments in public, though he is still permitted to say private Masses. Under the arrangement, he receives a small stipend and minimal health care coverage.

Blackwell has presided at two Baltimore parishes, St. Bernadine's and St. Edward's. He has also run the Maryland chapter of a program to help recovering drug addicts, called One Church-One Addict.

From 1997 to 2000, the group received $36,000 in grants from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's crime-fighting program, HotSpots.

With a vanity license plate on his Toyota sport-utility vehicle that reads "Priest," Blackwell is a well-known figure around Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his mother in a brick row house adorned by a red and white awning.

His neighbors described him as outgoing and vigilant in trying to keep the area free of drug dealers. They said they could not imagine him abusing youngsters.

"He tried to keep the neighborhood clean," said Norma Allen, a neighbor who ran outside after the shooting and found Blackwell lying in the street.

Toni Ogunfua, sitting with her 1-year-old son, King David, said Blackwell was constantly talking to youths in the neighborhood who appeared to be involved with drugs.

"You have to wonder -- you step out your door and a priest gets shot," she said. "I was brought up to believe that priests do what God can't do on the streets."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad