Scandal stirs anger, sadness among local Roman Catholics

References from pulpit, fears of failed leadership

May 20, 2002|By Marcia Myers and Dennis O'Brien | Marcia Myers and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Roman Catholics in the Baltimore Archdiocese listened respectfully yesterday as priests drew lessons from the unfolding clergy child abuse scandal and dealt with the fallout.

But parishioners emerged from Pentecost Sunday services with plenty to say, too, after a week that began with the shooting of a Baltimore priest in connection with decade-old child abuse claims. By week's end, Cardinal William H. Keeler had issued public apologies for the handling of that case and for sexual abuse by other priests.

Around the region yesterday, Catholics spoke of disappointment, change and, more than anything, of sadness.

Most focused on the case of Dontee Stokes, who was a teen-age worshipper at St. Edward Church in West Baltimore in 1993 when he accused the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell of molesting him. Records show that church and law enforcement officials believed Stokes had been molested, but Blackwell was never charged.

After Blackwell underwent three months of psychiatric evaluation and treatment, Keeler reinstated him as pastor of St. Edward. In 1998, Blackwell admitted to having sex with a minor more than 20 years earlier, and he was suspended indefinitely.

Stokes, now 26, is accused of shooting and wounding Blackwell last Monday, apparently in a rage over a lack of apology from the priest.

Beverly Carrera of Towson, a lifelong Catholic and a psychiatric nurse who works with adolescents, said she believed most local Catholics expected stronger leadership from the archdiocese.

"I feel very sad that they didn't deal with this issue when it happened," Carrera said as she arrived yesterday for Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore. "It makes it very difficult now when my 12-year-old grandson asks questions. I have no answers."

The scandal should renew questions about celibacy requirements for priests and the ban on female clergy, she said.

Keeler celebrated Mass at the cathedral yesterday but made no reference to the dispute. Late last week, he issued a number of apologies: during a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption, in an opinion article published in The Sun, and on a visit with Stokes' grandfather in his West Baltimore home.

Having "dedicated ourselves to seeking solace for victims and fair punishment for perpetrators," Keeler wrote in the article, "I apologize for instances in which our efforts have failed."

"The real problem is in the cover-up," said Ernest Laszlo, a member of the Church of the Nativity on Ridge Road in Timonium. "I say open things up, open them up completely, and show concern for the victims of these cases."

Criticism was delivered from the pulpit, too.

The Rev. Michael J. White, Nativity's pastor, wrote in the church bulletin that he was outraged by the abuse and the church's response to it.

"I'm appalled that an accused predator was so quickly returned to his parish. ... I'm appalled that the young man in question was never assisted by the church," he wrote in the bulletin, which is distributed each week before Mass.

At St. Ignatius Church, a parish run by the Jesuits on North Calvert Street, the Rev. Clement J. Petrik told parishioners in a Mass broadcast over WBAL radio that the renewal of faith that is a traditionally part of Pentecost is a necessity. He said the scandal has left many feeling "betrayed."

"Today we need a born-again faith," Petrik told worshipers. "Instead of renewal, there is suspicion. Instead of peace, there is turmoil. Instead of goodness, there is the stench of evil.

"Instead of faithfulness, there is betrayal."

After Mass, parishioner Richard Gorman said the scandal has left him angry with archdiocese leaders who seem overly concerned with protecting their own. Church officials who have imposed a strict moral code on generations of Catholics have failed to live up to it themselves, he said.

"They want to be forgiving of their own, but they're trapped by their own past teachings," Gorman said. "The chickens have come home to roost."

Dennis Dunn, another parishioner at St. Ignatius, said that Keeler must be held responsible.

"Whether he knew about it or not, he's in a position where he should have known," Dunn said.

Others say they have no doubt that while there might be problems with the leadership, the church itself and its core teachings remain strong.

"There probably are problems in the leadership of just about every organization; the church is no different," said Ryan Milburn, who worshipped yesterday in Timonium.

"Everybody is angry, but we've got to remember that the anger should be at the crime, not at the church," said Reisterstown resident Lynn Eareckson, outside the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. "Cardinal Keeler is doing the very best he can, and he's always done his best."

"In hindsight, I wish better choices had been made," said Lynn Runk of Westminster as she left the cathedral. "But we believe people can heal. I think [the archdiocese] believed people - the accused priest - could change and there could be healing. I think it's a work in progress."

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