Attitudes about sexuality on trial

February 12, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

STANDING IN Baltimore Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger's courtroom yesterday, attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell looked from the jurors and pointed to his client, former priest Maurice Blackwell.

"Here's your fall guy," Ravenell told the jury.

With that, Ravenell launched a shot that might not be heard around the world, but it could be heard around the communities of black America. Blackwell is charged with sexually abusing Dontee Stokes for several years starting in the late 1980s. Stokes, now 29, claims he was 13 when the alleged abuse began.

Blackwell was a priest in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church then, one of the first black priests to serve in Baltimore, Ravenell told the jury. Under his pastorship, St. Edward Catholic Church in West Baltimore grew from about 100 families to 900.

"Blackwell is a man who has served his community and faith for 30 years," Ravenell said in his opening statement.

Well, in fact, for 24 years, starting in 1974, when Blackwell was ordained, until 1998, when charges were leveled that the St. Edward pastor had had sexual relations with a minor in the 1970s. Blackwell said that incident happened well before he was ordained, but the church removed him as pastor of St. Edward anyway. Last October, Blackwell was defrocked by papal edict.

And yesterday, he hobbled into Berger's courtroom on his cane - the result of injuries he suffered when Stokes shot him in May 2002 - to answer charges that he sexually molested Stokes years ago. Both men are black and their race is an important element here. Ravenell seemed ready yesterday to hang out more of black America's dirty laundry on how we deal with homosexuality among black men.

The crux of Ravenell's defense is that Stokes is utterly confused, perhaps terrified, of being identified as gay.

"You'll learn that Dontee Stokes, even before he met Maurice Blackwell, was struggling with his own sexuality," Ravenell told the jury.

When Stokes took the stand as the state's first witness, Ravenell pursued that theme with the ferocity of a deranged pit bull.

"Before and after your contact with Father Blackwell," Ravenell asked Stokes, "you continued to struggle with your sexuality, is that correct?"

"That's correct," answered Stokes.

"Up until the time you shot Father Blackwell," Ravenell pressed, "you were still preoccupied with your sexuality and whether gay men were out to have their way with you?"

"Yes," Stokes answered.

Figuring he'd come across a treasure trove of Stokes contradictions, Ravenell tried to dig for as much information as he could to cast doubt on the star witness' credibility. Ravenell tried to portray Stokes as a man obsessed with the notion that gay men were always hitting on him and as one who believes that men become gay not through genetics, but because they were abused as children.

Ravenell even dragged Stokes' mom into the discussion.

"It was right around the time that you made these allegations against Father Blackwell that your mother was patting you on the ass and calling you `faggy boy,' wasn't it?" Ravenell asked.

Stokes answered that his mother's comment was in jest and that, through his own research and questioning of gay men, he had come to the conclusion that boys who suffer sexual abuse grow up to be men who act out promiscuously, either through heterosexual or homosexual acts.

Whether Ravenell's questions were intended to provoke yet another discussion on how black gay men are viewed by other African-Americans or not, we are confronted with the dilemma once again. It came up last year, during that famous discussion about whether the increase in the rate of HIV/AIDS cases among black women was because they were being infected by bisexual black men living the "down low" lifestyle.

That was the most overhyped and overrated story of 2004. There's not a shred of evidence - not one study, not one statistic - that even hints that the increase is because of black men living on the "down low." That didn't stop certain preachy pundits for blaming the spread of HIV/AIDS among black women on the "bigotry" of the black church and its hostility to gays.

It occurs to me the black church has the same "bigotry" against intravenous drug users and those who practice promiscuous heterosexual sex. That conduct is every bit as responsible - and, since there is no hard data, could be more so - for the rise in HIV/AIDS in black America as black men on the down low.

Whether or not Maurice Blackwell sexually abused Dontee Stokes is a worrisome matter 12 jurors, whose job I don't envy, will have to decide. But Ravenell's defense of Blackwell poses a conundrum for black America.

Are our attitudes toward gays helping us or hurting us?

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