Sex abuse scandal profoundly personal

Reaction `triggered' by reports, friends say

May 15, 2002|By Scott Shane and Del Quentin Wilber | Scott Shane and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

One evening last week, watching an NBA playoff game with friends at home, Dontee Stokes made a seemingly casual remark about the sexual-abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church.

"He just made a statement that it's messed up what these priests were getting away with," said Damon E. Fisher, a friend and co-owner of the barber shop where Stokes cuts hair.

But the conversation went no further, because some people present didn't know that for Stokes, the scandal was profoundly personal. A decade ago, he had accused a priest of molesting him - and later felt that both the legal system and the church had betrayed him, according to family and friends.

Yesterday, when Fisher heard reports that Stokes had turned himself in after shooting his alleged abuser, the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, he found it hard to believe that his mild-mannered friend could be capable of such violence.

"I was in shock," Fisher said. "Then I thought that whatever he went through with that priest, he just couldn't take it anymore. All the news must have triggered something."

Though he had made a life for himself as a barber and planned an August wedding to the mother of his 20-month-old daughter, Stokes, 26, never seemed to recover fully from what he described as three years of sexual abuse, friends and relatives said.

"He felt that Maurice was like a mentor to him," said Stokes' fiancee, Tiffani Taft, 22.

His family said Stokes' personality changed after 1993, when the 11th-grader at St. Francis Academy told a guidance counselor that he had been abused. He was further disillusioned, they said, when city prosecutors declined to charge Blackwell and then-Archbishop William H. Keeler reinstated the popular priest to his West Baltimore parish.

Once an easygoing teen-ager, Stokes grew moody and depressed. He slept whenever he could; his family came to call it his "escape."

In recent months - as news coverage of the sexual-abuse scandal became inescapable - Stokes became more despondent, drinking to excess and even threatening suicide, his mother said.

But he never sought professional help and didn't speak of his despair outside the family. "He dealt with it on his own," said Tamara Stokes, 43.

Friends and relatives said Dontee Stokes was a soft-spoken man with no history of violence, not even a bad temper. He has no criminal record.

But they say his brooding over the alleged abuse might have pushed him to the breaking point.

"Maybe certain events, the things in the news, triggered his reaction," said Tanya Bryant, a close friend. "The line between sanity and insanity is thin."

"He seemed real calm," said Kelly E. Jones, the other co-owner of Supermans Barber Shop on West North Avenue. "Just a hard-working, nice guy. I guess it was just eating him inside."

Jones, 29, added that he understands his friend's act, even if he does not condone it. "I have an 11-year-old daughter. If that happened to her, I might do the same thing," he said.

`So much anger'

According to a 1993 police report, the abuse allegedly occurred after Bible classes that Stokes attended at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church at Poplar Grove Street and Prospect Avenue. After the classes, Stokes was asked to visit Blackwell in the priest's office, where they talked about the classes.

After the talks, Stokes told police, Blackwell would hug him. "As time went on, the hugs became longer and [Blackwell] would start to fondle the complainant with his hands while hugging him," the report says.

When Stokes would push away, Blackwell "would raise his voice and tell him to hug him back harder," according to the police report.

Stokes' mother said yesterday that she thought there was more to the allegations, that her son might be holding back from her because she could not imagine him shooting someone over mere touching.

"In my heart, the way he felt, there was so much anger, it had to be more than just the fondling," said Tamara Stokes. "He never told me exactly what happened, to this day."

Unable to let go

Church officials and police investigated the teenager's charges. Prosecutors cited insufficient evidence and declined to press charges. After undergoing three months of therapy at a church-run treatment center, Blackwell was allowed by Keeler to return to St. Edward - a decision later criticized by a panel that Keeler had appointed to review such cases.

After Blackwell returned to the parish, Stokes felt wronged by the church, his mother said.

"They covered it up," she said. "They gave him no help, no counseling whatsoever. Nobody wanted to believe that this man could do this."

Stokes appeared unable to let the matter go. He kept newspaper clippings about the controversy surrounding Blackwell at St. Edward, his mother said.

Stokes left St. Francis and attended Edmondson High School briefly before dropping out. Later, he earned a high school equivalency diploma, and in 1995 he completed barber training at the International Academy of Hair Design on West Pratt Street.

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