Clergy sex scandal: another descent into the cesspool

February 17, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

WHAT am I doing in this cesspool again? It was a lovely Lenten Wednesday in the old palatinate. I could have had a leisurely bagel and coffee with friends in the kibitz room at Attman's. I could have sat quietly in the natural light of the back room of The Daily Grind and read the new City Paper. I could have taken a long drive out to Long Green to visit an old gentlemanly friend on his gentleman farm. Instead, I went to the spectacle of the defrocked priest trial downtown, and heard of nipple massaging.

The Catholic priest sex scandal keeps rolling along, like some underground river of old sludge, moving after a long freeze and bubbling to the surface in archdioceses from here to California.

Twelve years have passed since Dontee Stokes first accused his parish priest, Maurice Blackwell, of molesting him, and it has been nearly as long since the Baltimore state's attorney's office decided not to prosecute that case.

It has been seven years since Blackwell was forced out of his church in West Baltimore after admitting he had a sexual relationship with a different teen in the 1970s.

We are coming up on three years since Stokes shot Blackwell with a .357 Magnum, an explosion of violence in the midst of a barrage of reports about the creepy and criminal sexual habits of clergy across the nation.

It has been 2 1/2 years since Cardinal William H. Keeler went public with the names of 83 diocesan priests and men in religious orders who had been accused of sexual abuse.

It has been more than two years since a jury acquitted Stokes of attempting to kill the priest.

And just when you thought the whole sick, sad story had gone away, we get one more trial in the old archdiocese: This time it was the former priest, Blackwell, filling a Windsor chair at the defendant's table in Baltimore Circuit Court, Room 438.

Closing arguments were yesterday.

The prosecutor asserted -- if a person of such dull speech pattern can be said to "assert" -- that the defrocked priest had sexually abused Stokes when he was a child, using words like "grappling" and "grinding" to describe what Blackwell had done.

The defense lawyer argued that Stokes was mentally ill and that his allegations -- Blackwell putting the boy's hands to the priest's chest after a shower in the rectory, for instance -- might be some delusion born from confusion over Stokes' sexual identity. Blackwell's accuser, after all, claimed to have had out-of-body experiences and experimented with witchcraft.

I should have gone fishing at Loch Raven.

Or perhaps I should feel grateful.

All things being relative, we have it good in Baltimore.

Boston might claim the world championships of professional football and baseball, but it has the North American title in creepy priest stuff, too.

An investigation by the Massachusetts attorney general found that about 1,000 children in the Archdiocese of Boston had been molested by more than 240 priests since the 1940s.

The archdiocese agreed to settle more than 550 lawsuits for $85 million; it is closing parishes to pay for this. One Boston lawyer has filed 25 more lawsuits, naming 18 priests, and he says more calls are coming in.

Just last week, a 74-year-old defrocked priest, Paul Shanley, was convicted of fondling and raping a boy in a Newton, Mass., parish in the 1980s. He used to pull the boy from Sunday catechism classes and molest him. His other accusers cheered in a courtroom this week when Shanley was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison.

There are thousands of lawsuits across the country -- more than 800 pending against dioceses in California. In December, the diocese in Orange County reached a $100 million settlement with 87 victims, resolving allegations stretching like a foul river from 1936 to 1996.

I left the Blackwell trial as the jury headed out to deliberate. I didn't know whom to feel sorry for -- Blackwell, Stokes, or all those of faith who have been worn down by this long, ugly and spiritually debilitating drama. Some of them were in the courtroom yesterday.

There have been a lot of sad and angry discussions about all this at suppers in Catholic families across the country.

Nothing in the last few years has changed my thinking about it. I've said it before: The church needs to ordain men and women who are also allowed to receive the sacrament of matrimony or engage without shame in loving relationships with other adults.

Celibacy must go, for the sake of Catholic parish life. It is an unrealistic demand.

Dropping celibacy would open the culture of the priesthood to greater numbers of healthy and bright men and women, bring new blood into the church, and ensure some kind of future.

But I don't see it happening, and I don't see these problems going away. It's the season of Lent, with the scent of spring in the air, and I don't know why I stepped into this cesspool again.

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