The anguish within

May 16, 2002

A SIMPLE "I'm sorry" might have made all the difference.

It's a lesson learned too late by the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, shot three times Monday by an anguished young man who had accused him of sexual molestation. And perhaps that's no surprise, since it's also a lesson learned too late by the Catholic Church, which for years has protected sexually abusive priests and paid off victims instead of taking responsibility for the appalling criminal conduct of some of its own.

When Dontee Stokes was in high school, he charged Father Blackwell with repeatedly sexually fondling him after Bible classes, but neither diocesan officials nor the state's attorney's office gave his accusations credence. The church's decision was later criticized by a review panel established by Cardinal William H. Keeler, calling Mr. Stokes' charges "consistent and credible" and noting that he passed two polygraph tests. What made those charges more credible still was that Father Blackwell in 1998 admitted having sex with another minor years earlier.

After that, Father Blackwell lost his standing in the church. But is it possible that back in the early '90s, Mr. Stokes had lost a lot more? We don't know that, because the church and the justice system chose not to find out. What we know now is that a man with no criminal record and no history of violence got a gun and shot Father Blackwell three times because, he said, "he wouldn't apologize."

The real surprise may be that the Reservoir Hill shooting is the first incident of violent revenge that has occurred in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal involving Catholic priests.

Does any of this -- guilt or innocence, apology or disdain -- excuse the shooting of Father Blackwell? Of course not. But it might explain it. And it might help the church to understand, should it need any more help on the matter than the evidence of the last few months has rendered, a couple of salient points.

The first is that hiding the truth and harboring criminals is ultimately destructive behavior for any organization, but most especially one whose fundamental tenets are grounded in faith and trust. It is altogether possible that if Father Blackwell and Mr. Stokes had had their day in court those many years ago, this tragedy might not have happened.

The second is that the young people who are molested, first by a priest and then by the system that supports him, carry scars for life. Some get paid off quietly, some sue, and some seethe. But it isn't really about money -- ever. How do you buy back a generation of Catholic youth?

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