Priest's reinstatement criticized by review board

July 08, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

A Roman Catholic priest reinstated as pastor of a West Baltimore church where he had been accused of sexual abuse of a minor "should not have been reassigned to parish ministry," a blue-ribbon review board has advised Archbishop William H. Keeler.

But Archbishop Keeler defended his decision to return the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell in December to his pastorate at St. Edward Church at Poplar Grove Street and Lafayette Avenue. The priest had been removed from the post for nearly three months while he underwent counseling at an evaluation and treatment center in Hartford, Conn.

Archbishop Keeler, responding June 30 to the criticism from his review board, noted that its members did not "have the benefit of meeting with Father Blackwell personally." The archbishop said he was satisfied that the priest "had recommited himself to faithful spiritual service to the people of St. Edward's Parish."

The criticism of the decision had come March 16 from the independent board appointed by the archbishop. The difference opinion was acknowledged publicly yesterday by the archdiocese, which released copies of correspondence between the board and the archbishop.

Also published in this week's Catholic Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, were copies of letters of support for Father Blackwell from a group of local Catholic priests and the Parish Council of St. Edward Church.

Efforts to reach Father Blackwell yesterday were unsuccessful.

Part of the agreement between Archbishop Keeler and the review board when it was appointed late last year was that the board should provide "feedback" regarding the archdiocese's handling of specific cases. In accordance with that understanding, the board told Archbishop Keeler in a lengthy letter March 16, "Recognizing that any decision of yours in this case -- no matter what it was -- would be difficult and controversial, we are never theless of the opinion that Father Blackwell should not have been returned to St. Edward's."

The board reminded the archbishop that a team he had assigned to study the case found the accusations against Father Blackwell "consistent and credible."

In September, the Baltimore Police Department said 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, which the priest denied.

The independent review board recalled in its letter to the archbishop that his own investigating team had reported that "the information we possess does not support a high level of confidence that the events alleged by [the youth] did not occur." The board went on to say, "Under these circumstances, we believe the return of Father Blackwell to the parish -- even under protective constraints -- constituted an unacceptable risk. . . .

"We believe that all parish ministry positions, no matter how carefully circumscribed by protective conditions, potentially provide access to children." The review board also told Archbishop Keeler, "There is no consensus among us as to whether, having been reinstated, he should now be recalled from the parish."

In the reply to the criticism from the board headed by P. McEvoy Cromwell, a Baltimore lawyer and active Catholic layman, the archbishop said, "Father Blackwell volunteered to move from the [St. Edward] rectory, now converted to office and meeting room use, to live with his mother. In addition, he does not work with youth and meets on a weekly basis with a priests' support group, besides continuing in more intense spiritual direction and psychotherapy." Father Blackwell reports monthly to Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard and has met several times since December with Archbishop Keeler, the panel was told.

None of the members of the board is a priest or sister, and not all are Catholics. In addition to Mr. Cromwell, the board includes Dr. Michael E. Johns, dean of the Johns Hopkins medical school; Sally Michel, who chaired the Mayor's Task Force on Child

Abuse; Jesse J. Harris, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work; and Darrell D. Friedman, president of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Also on the nine-member board are Beverly A. Cooper, vice president of the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation; Mary Kay Finan, an assistant professor at Frostburg State University; Leonard A. Strom, a Black & Decker Corp. vice president; and Paul G. Wist, senior partner of the C. W. Amos accounting firm.

One of the concerns expressed by the board was that, when a priest is accused, the church must be candid with parents and children about possible dangers. The board added that potential informants must be assured by the church that "they are not going to be discounted and left with their reputations in tatters."

All nine board members signed the March 16 letter to the archbishop reviewing the Blackwell case, which concluded, "Today, we have delivered a slug of castor oil. Tomorrow, perhaps, we will bring a bouquet. (But that's not a promise.)"

In his reply, Archbishop Keeler said, "All these issues are most sensitive. Your raising them in a specific case, while necessarily painful, also serves to keep us alert to the need to be constantly faithful to the policies we have adopted and, as this exchange of letters demonstrates, open and accountable in carrying them out for the good of all.

"This occasion also calls us, with the parishioners of St. Edward's, Father Blackwell's mentors and support group, to encourage and support with our prayers his own pilgrimage of faith and service."

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