The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore announced yesterday that it was returning the Rev. Maurice Blackwell to his West Baltimore parish nearly three months after it removed him over an allegation of sexual misconduct.
"The archdiocese is satisfied that the allegation is groundless," Mark Pacione, a spokesman, said yesterday.
Father Blackwell, who is scheduled to celebrate Mass at the church Dec. 12, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Since his removal, Father Blackwell, 47, has been under evaluation at an out-of-state residential treatment center run by the Catholic Church. He remained there even after the Baltimore Police Department disclosed late in September that it was dropping its investigation of an allegation by a teen-age male parishioner that Father Blackwell had "inappropriately touched" him. The department said it could not substantiate the charge.
After the police investigation ended, members of St. Edward's complained about the delay in Father Blackwell's return. Mr. Pacione explained yesterday that the church's "evaluation" entails not only an assessment of a pastor's fitness, but also an opportunity for his "spiritual growth and development." Part of that process, Mr. Pacione said, is an assessment of how the allegation itself affects the pastor and his ministry.
"If you're accused of sexual abuse and later the charges are dropped, don't you think you need time to deal with that?" Mr. Pacione asked.
The evaluation ended Thursday with a meeting in Baltimore involving Father Blackwell, Archbishop William H. Keeler and Bishop John Ricard. Mr. Pacione said he could not comment on '' what was discussed at the meeting except that it was agreed Father Blackwell would return to St. Edward's, his parish for the last 14 years.
In a three-paragraph announcement, the archdiocese expressed Archbishop Keeler's gratitude "to Father Blackwell for his cooperation and for his willingness to assume his pastoral duties at St. Edward's."
The statement also thanked the parishioners of St. Edward's "for their patience and understanding."
Lay leaders at St. Edward's, who strongly backed Father Blackwell after the allegation against him, rejoiced. "I feel relieved for Father, but I never had any doubts that he wouldn't return," said Carolyn Fugett, a longtime church member. "I'm glad our family is getting back together."
After Father Blackwell's removal from the pulpit, several members of his predominantly black church, where many already felt the archdiocese was out of touch with its black members, criticized the archdiocese for suspending the priest on the basis of a single allegation. Father Blackwell is one of two black parish priests in the archdiocese.
But Bentley Bedford, president of the St. Edward's parish council, said yesterday that the incident would do no lasting damage to the relationship between the church and the archdiocese. "I think they were acting in good faith," Mr. Bentley said of the archdiocese.