St. Edward's fears loss of black leadership Church doubly stricken by accusation of abuse by priest

September 26, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

Shortly after the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell was removed from his pulpit over allegations of child sexual abuse, a sign and yellow ribbons materialized outside St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church proclaiming the parishioners' support for their pastor.

For the Catholic Church, the events at St. Edward's in West Baltimore followed an all too familiar pattern: A parish priest accused of molesting children; a devoted congregation in anguished denial.

But in the case of St. Edward's, the potentially permanent departure of Father Blackwell includes an extra measure of despair. Not only does the church face the possibility of losing its longtime spiritual leader, but it also may be deprived of a man who helped the predominantly black congregation wed its Catholic faith to its African-American heritage.

In his 14 years at St. Edward's, Father Blackwell infused the church with African and African-American customs and rituals, a contribution, parishioners say, that made Catholicism much more vivid and relevant in their lives.

An energetic man, often resplendent in African robes, Father Blackwell, 47, is credited with helping St. Edward's more than triple in size to about 300 families and to play an increasingly beneficent role in its poor West Baltimore neighborhood. Along the way, he also found time to help raise more than a dozen young men -- refugees from dysfunctional families, who lived with Father Blackwell in his rectory.

"Father Blackwell helped give our church its identity," said Carolyn Fugett, a longtime parishioner. Having Father Blackwell, black man, lead the church, "meant that we could relate. It meant we could worship in our style without feeling embarrassed."

"The main thing is, we all come to serve the Lord, but we all do it in different ways," she said.

Father Blackwell's life of accomplishment was stained two weeks ago when the Baltimore Archdiocese suspended him from his St. Edward's duties after a male, teen-age parishioner told Baltimore police and archdiocese officials that the priest had "inappropriately touched him." With the agreement of Father Blackwell, who denied the allegation, the archdiocese sent him to an undisclosed residential treatment center for "psychological evaluation." Meanwhile, the police investigation is continuing.

As it faces the prospect of losing a much-admired pastor, the wariness that St. Edward's parishioners have always felt toward the central authority of the archdiocese has become outright suspicion.

"There is a strong feeling that [Father Blackwell] is not being dealt with fairly," said Skip Sanders, a friend of the pastor for nearly 30 years. "There's a feeling that it is being rushed, that things are moving as if there is a presumption of guilt rather than innocence."

But Elinor Burkett, co-author of the forthcoming book, "A Gospel of Shame," an examination of the Catholic Church's response to sexual misconduct of its clergy, says that the Baltimore Archdiocese is in a delicate position. Too often, the church has been guilty of ignoring and covering up the sexual misbehavior of its priests, she said. That policy, though, has resulted in many more children being victimized and, not incidentally, costly legal settlements.

"I think with child sexual abuse, the presumption has to be made at least at the beginning in favor of guilt because you have to protect children," said Ms. Burkett, who lives in Baltimore. "This is not the justice system. The church can basically do what it wants. The church is protecting itself."

Rob Rehg, a spokesman for the archdiocese, denies that the archdiocese is doing anything other than trying to determine whether the allegation against Father Blackwell is true. "We don't want them [accused priests] to live under a cloud of accusations," said Mr. Rehg, "but at the same time, we want to make sure we're being fair to our parishioners, especially the young ones."

He said that often, "evaluations" of priests by psychologists have led to confessions of misbehavior.

'Sense of pride'

St. Edward's parishioners insist there will be no such confession in this case, and they are unwilling to contemplate the church without Father Blackwell. In describing his role at the church, they make him sound irreplaceable. In at least some ways, they )) are very nearly right.

In May 1974, Maurice Blackwell's close friend, Donald Sterling, became the first black ordained in the Baltimore Archdiocese's 184-year history. A week later, Father Blackwell became the second. Today, they are the only two blacks presiding over parishes in the archdiocese even though there are 16 predominantly black churches.

That disparity is present across the country in the Catholic Church. Of 1,200 black Catholic churches in the United States, perhaps 100 are headed by African-American priests.

"We anticipated that we were the beginning of many," Father Sterling, now pastor of All Saint's Church in Northwest Baltimore, says wistfully.

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