Admiring teen found respected role model

Family: Relatives of shooting suspect Dontee Stokes watched his years of pain and struggle.

May 17, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

On the kitchen wall in Charles P. Stokes Sr.'s rowhouse is a photograph from 1987, one he views now with decidedly mixed feelings. On the left is Pope John Paul II, reaching to clasp the hands of Stokes' daughter Thomasine, who was visiting Rome with the choir at St. Edward Catholic Church.

And just beyond them, beaming at the camera, is the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, then pastor of St. Edward and a rising star of African-American Catholicism in Baltimore.

At the time, Charles Stokes' 11-year-old grandson, too, seemed to be thriving at St. Edward, joining youth groups and attending Bible classes. Dontee P. Stokes looked up to Blackwell. The priest seemed to pay special attention to the boy.

"It seemed like he was grooming Dontee for something," recalls Thomasine Wells, his aunt. After the teen became president of the Catholic Youth Organization at St. Edward, "Dontee even started talking like him."

No one in the Stokes family objected. Blackwell seemed an ideal role model - an eloquent spiritual leader who melded the stately rituals of Catholicism with the fervent preaching traditional in the black community.

"He walked on water in my house," says Charles Stokes Sr., 64, the patriarch of a proud Catholic clan: 12 children, 47 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren. "He ate at my table. He baptized my grandchildren," Dontee included.

Then, six years after the photo was taken, Dontee began to falter in school. Pressed by a school counselor and then a doctor, he said Blackwell had been sexually molesting him for three years.

Prosecutors declined to charge Blackwell, clearing the way for Archbishop William H. Keeler to restore the priest to his parish after three months of therapy. His congregation joyously welcomed him back, Dontee and his relatives left the church, and the archdiocese apparently considered the matter resolved.

But for Dontee Stokes, the pain did not end - not even after 1998, when Blackwell had to go on leave after admitting to sexual involvement with another youth. Stokes tried suicide, drank to blot the pain, withdrew to sleep or silence, his family says. It might have been hard for him to forget Blackwell: They lived a few blocks apart in Reservoir Hill, where all the neighbors recognize Blackwell's SUV with its "PRIEST" vanity plates.

Finally, Monday night, police say, Stokes confronted Blackwell, demanded an apology he did not get, and shot the priest three times with a .357 Magnum revolver.

Stokes, now 26, who is in jail and is scheduled for a bail hearing this afternoon, bought the gun illegally a month ago from a stranger, a law enforcement official said yesterday. He told police he bought it for protection against robbers, not with any thought of using it on his alleged abuser, the official said.

Blackwell, 56, remained in fair condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center last night. Neither he nor his relatives have been willing to comment on the case.

He is expected to recover and is likely to be the key witness at any future trial of Stokes. But if he appears on the witness stand, he might face public questioning for the first time about the alleged abuse.

The tragedy has engulfed two large West Baltimore families that share deep Catholic roots.

A cousin of Dontee Stokes still works for the archdiocese as a secretary. Dontee's uncle, Milton Stokes, was in seminary preparing for the priesthood when he was fatally shot in West Baltimore while walking home from church in 1979.

Charles Stokes, a retired statistical analyst for the postal service, jokes that he was "Baltimore's first black millionaire," because he was appointed in the 1970s to a small board that controlled the property of St. Bernardine Catholic Church.

It was to St. Bernardine's, on Edmondson Avenue, that Maurice Blackwell was assigned in 1974 after becoming one of the first two African-Americans to be ordained as priests in the Baltimore archdiocese.

He was already a minor celebrity. Saying he wanted to study Latin, he had talked his way into Towson Catholic High School, becoming its first black student. In 1964, at 17, he won the coveted national title of "Outstanding Catholic Youth of the Year," the first youth of any race from the Baltimore Archdiocese to be so honored.

Glowing reports in The Sun and Catholic publications marveled at his talents and leadership abilities. The archdiocesan youth director said that while Blackwell "has had his share of the myriad discriminations his race has suffered ... he never stopped trying nor soured."

One Catholic magazine, The Sign, reported a poignant moment at Towson Catholic when students were discussing the enrollment of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi:

"For 15 minutes, in a classroom in Maryland, Maurice spoke for the colored majority of mankind, about how it feels to be a Negro, about the morality of being what God made him to be. When he finished, every girl was weeping, every boy was cheering."

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