The pain of disbelief

May 19, 2002|By Crispin Sartwell

WHEN DONTEE Stokes was 17, he accused the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, a priest of the Baltimore Catholic Archdiocese, of having molested him. The archdiocese did not find the charge "credible." But it removed Father Blackwell from his parish in 1998 when he admitted to having sex with a boy.

On Monday, according to police, Mr. Stokes shot Mr. Blackwell, though not fatally.

Of course, there is such a thing as a false accusation of sexual misconduct. But let me say this, as someone merely expressing an opinion without knowing the parties:

I believe Dontee Stokes. I believe him because of what we're finding out about the Catholic Church. I believe him because of the circumstances under which Father Blackwell was removed. But I believe him also, if you understand me, because he shot Father Blackwell.

I can imagine how hard it would be to bring charges of sexual misconduct against a priest. I was sexually abused by a family member when I was a kid. For many years I could not admit it to anyone. I thought it was shameful and thought that I was at fault. That response is common.

But this shame would be doubled in a case in which the person you're accusing is a respected spiritual leader in the community.

Nevertheless, if Mr. Stokes was indeed molested, he did absolutely the right thing to come forward; had the church taken him seriously, he could have saved many boys from undergoing the same pain and shame.

When I picture myself as Mr. Stokes, I want only one thing: for people to believe me. Perhaps when he reached for that .357 Magnum, he reached the point at which he wanted people to believe him more than he wanted to be free, or even more than he wanted to live.

This is something we can understand. I think it is one of the most universal human desires to be believed, and one of the most deeply wounding experiences to be disbelieved when one is telling the truth.

I see the hurt in my children's eyes when I don't believe what they're telling me. And sometimes I'm wrong. That's why I try to believe as much as I can, even when the story seems implausible.

People spend many years trying to get into a position in which they'll be believed -- building trusting relationships, sharing thoughts and confessions. It's not too much to say that I went out and got a doctorate in philosophy so that what I was saying would have a certain authority, so that people would believe what I said. Indeed, this is also one reason to become a priest or to gain any position of authority -- because one's word carries weight, because people listen.

That's why priests who lie and deny damage not only their own souls and the souls of those they molest, but the power of their church. And that's why a church intent on evading the awful truth until there is absolutely no other possibility is a church that has lost its secular and spiritual authority.

I hope Father Blackwell recovers. I hope that if he molested Dontee Stokes he admits it frankly and repents. And I hope that whatever else Mr. Stokes' life may bring him now, it brings him belief.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He can be contacted through

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