Cardinal William H. Keeler walked into a Baltimore courtroom today and paused before Dontee Stokes, the man accused of shooting a priest in one of the most violent episodes in the Catholic Church's sexual abuse controversy.
Keeler shook Stokes's hand.
After the conciliatory gesture, the archbishop of Baltimore proceeded to the witness stand to tell the jury he regretted the decision he made nearly a decade ago to return the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell to a parish despite Stokes's allegations of abuse.
Testifying for the defense in Stokes's trial on attempted murder and assault charges, Keeler said conflicting advice and "uncertain circumstances" led him to leave the priest in place after counseling and a short suspension.
Stokes, 26, is accused of shooting and wounding Blackwell on a Baltimore street May 13. Stokes's attorney, Warren A. Brown, has said his client suffered a temporary breakdown at the time of the shooting, frustrated that prosecutors and church officials did nothing in 1993 when he first accused Blackwell of sexually abusing him.
Stokes, who also took the stand today, described the shooting as an out-of-body experience.
He told the jury he tried to make peace and offer Christian forgiveness to Blackwell that night. But Stokes said after Blackwell rudely rebuffed him, he "lost it" and shot the priest with a .357 magnum.
"My mind is going so fast," Stokes said, "I could see events leading up to this point. I could see the abuse. I'm in disbelief. I'm gone. . . . I reached for the gun, or my body reached for the gun. I heard shots fired. I was fighting to get myself back into my body. . . . Everybody was screaming. That woke me up."
In more than two hours of emotional testimony, Stokes described years of spiritual and sexual turmoil resulting from abuse by Blackwell, which Stokes says began in 1990, when he was 14.
Stokes, who was active in the youth group and choir of St. Edward Catholic Church, looked up to Blackwell as a father figure and mentor. "He took me under his wing and introduced me to people as his son," Stokes said. "I felt proud about that."
Blackwell's "subtle passes" eventually turned to molestation, Stokes said. "Hugs that were casual became uncasual."
Stokes said Blackwell molested him on at least 20 occasions over three years, culminating in a final encounter in the bedroom of the rectory, where Blackwell raped him. "I could not take it anymore," Stokes said. He never returned to the church. Stokes, then 17, reported the incident to school counselors, who informed police.
In August 1993, Stokes told his story to Baltimore police detective Frederick V. Roussey, who is now a lieutenant. Roussey testified today that he believed Stokes. But when Roussey tried to call the priest in for an interview, prosecutors discouraged him because of Blackwell's position as a prominent African American pastor.
Roussey told jurors that one Baltimore assistant state's attorney said to him: "I don't understand the problem. He's been doing this for a long time. Just sit on it."
Ultimately, the state's attorney's office ruled the case "exceptionally cleared," meaning that law enforcement found Stokes's allegations credible but did not have enough evidence to file formal charges against Blackwell.
Keeler said he weighed Stokes's claims against Blackwell's repeated denials and the fact that prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges against the priest.
"I had only the indication from Dontee," Keeler said. "On the other hand was Maurice Blackwell's consistent, persevering denials of the accusations, and in the public record, charges were not brought.
"Given the information we have now, I would certainly not do it again."
Keeler said he sent Blackwell for a three-month mental health evaluation and, when the priest returned to the parish, placed him under a series of restrictions. Those included having no ministry with young people or children, continuing therapy, moving out of the rectory, attending meetings with a priest support group and reporting monthly to the bishop.
"That sounds like a long laundry list of requirements," Brown noted.
"My concern was that we protect children," Keeler responded. "The indications were that we should be alert in this case."
"A little late for Dontee, you have to admit," Brown said.
"I admit it, and I've apologized to him for that," Keeler replied.
In 1998, after another man alleged that Blackwell had abused him, Keeler removed the priest from ministry. Diocese lawyers are now working with the Vatican to have Blackwell removed from the priesthood permanently.
In the months since the shooting, the state's attorney's office has renewed its investigation into Blackwell's conduct. Blackwell, called to testify for the prosecution on Wednesday, invoked his Fifth Amendment right protecting him from self-incrimination.
Keeler has publicly apologized to Stokes and has won praise for his decision to publicly disclose the names of all priests in his diocese accused of child abuse.