Baltimore man accused of abuse is defrocked by the Vatican

December 23, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Maurice Blackwell, a Baltimore priest accused of sexually abusing a parishioner who shot the cleric years later, has been defrocked in an irrevocable decree by Pope John Paul II, according to a statement released yesterday by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The pope decided in October to dismiss the former pastor of St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore from the clerical state, said archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine. Local church officials received the pope's decree this month, and Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, personally delivered it to Blackwell at his Reservoir Hill home, Caine said.

"He is no longer a priest in the eyes of the church," said Caine of Blackwell. The cleric had already been "removed from the ministry," which effectively had barred him from performing most sacraments and limited his priestly functions to saying Mass in private.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported that Cardinal William H. Keeler reinstated Maurice Blackwell in 1998 after Blackwell acknowledged a sexual relationship with a teenager. In fact, in 1998, Blackwell was permanently removed from the ministry immediately after acknowledging that relationship and was never reinstated.
The Sun regrets the error.

"The decree prohibits him from presenting himself as a priest," Caine said.

Keeler had asked Blackwell to sign the Vatican decree, but Blackwell refused. Even so, the decree is not subject to appeal. "In the pope's eyes, it's a done deal," Caine said.

Keeler, through his spokesman, declined to comment on the dismissal.

Blackwell, 58, is to go on trial Jan. 3 on four counts of child sexual abuse against Dontee Stokes, 28, whom he baptized as a child and mentored as a teenager. Stokes, who has accused Blackwell of sexually abusing him between 1989 and 1992, shot the older man in May 2002. A jury later acquitted Stokes, a barber, of attempted murder charges.

Caine said the archdiocese received word from Rome before one of Blackwell's previously scheduled trial dates, and officials decided not to go public with the defrocking decree out of consideration for how it might affect potential jurors. Officials decided to release a statement yesterday after the Associated Press asked about Blackwell's status, Caine said.

Blackwell's attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, declined to comment on the Vatican's decision.

Blackwell, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed. In the past, he has denied the sexual abuse allegations.

Stokes' attorney, Warren A. Brown, said Stokes and his family would be pleased.

"They are zealous when it comes to Catholicism and they will enjoy knowing that the Catholic Church has given Blackwell the boot," Brown said.

Brown said that Blackwell's status as a defrocked priest could help prosecutors in the sexual abuse case:

"He cannot be referred to as a priest now. If the jury knows that he has been defrocked, then certainly he is probably less in their eyes because now the church has weighed in on his transgressions, the same transgressions that Dontee has leveled against him."

Stokes could not be reached for comment last night.

The only other Maryland priest Caine could recall being defrocked by the Vatican was Brian M. Cox, a Carroll County clergyman who was the first archdiocese cleric to be charged with child abuse and sex offenses since the church abuse scandal erupted in Boston in January 2002. Cox, who had been associate pastor of St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster at the time of the crimes, pleaded guilty in 2002 to child abuse and was defrocked early this year.

Defrocking, which the church calls "laicization," is applied in extreme cases of misconduct. It comes about only after a long process involving the Vatican. Caine said Keeler requested the decree in Blackwell's case in accordance to guidelines set out at the 2002 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, when church leaders passed a "zero tolerance" policy for abusive priests.

"He sent the case to Rome," Caine said. "Any sexual abuse allegation against any church personnel that is deemed to be credible must be sent to the Vatican. ... They decide if further steps need to be taken."

Blackwell was a pastor at St. Edward from 1979 until 1998, when he was stripped of his church authority. He had acknowledged having a sexual relationship with a teenage boy other than Stokes in the 1970s.

Keeler allowed Blackwell to return to the parish that same year after the priest received psychological treatment, but barred him from direct ministry with children and young adults. Blackwell was removed shortly thereafter, however, when the Stokes allegations surfaced.

"When he was removed from ministry here by us, he was at least able to say Mass for himself, and he can't even do that now," Caine said.

In May 2002, in the midst of the national scandal involving Catholic priests, Stokes saw Blackwell outside the cleric's home and shot him three times with a .357 Magnum revolver.

In the aftermath, Baltimore prosecutors reviewed Stokes' sexual abuse allegations and charged Blackwell with molesting Stokes.

Stokes was acquitted of attempted murder in December 2002 but convicted on gun charges. He admitted shooting Blackwell, but testified that he had an "out-of-body experience" at the time. He served a sentence of home detention.

Blackwell, who attended St. Mary's Seminary & University in the 1960s in Baltimore, was ordained in 1974. He was assigned to St. Bernadine Catholic Church and then to St. Edward, where he was known as a charismatic leader who helped triple the size of the parish to about 300 families.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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