Defrocked priest proclaims his innocence

Delivering his message with the same impassioned oratory he once used from the pulpit, Maurice Blackwell, a former priest, defended himself publicly yesterday for the first time.

On the eve of his trial on sexual child abuse charges, Blackwell excoriated the Roman Catholic Church for abandoning him and called his accuser mentally disturbed.

Jury selection begins this morning in the trial of the recently defrocked priest who stands accused of molesting Dontee Stokes, a former parishioner at St. Edward Catholic Church in West Baltimore, more than a decade ago.

Stokes shot Blackwell, 58, almost three years ago. After the 29-year-old was acquitted of attempted murder charges, city prosecutors sought an indictment for the ex-priest.

"What has happened to me over the past 10 years has cost me most of what a person holds dear," Blackwell said, reading from a prepared statement. "I have lost my good name and reputation, my peace of mind; even my health and physical mobility have been impaired over something I did not do."

Seated next to him at the news conference, held in a downtown law office, were his 83-year-old mother, Priscilla Kelly, and his defense attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell. A half-dozen friends and relatives, several of whom had dark smudges on their foreheads in observance of Ash Wednesday, held hands behind them.

Carefully chosen words

None of Blackwell's supporters would answer questions, and after the speech, he quickly hobbled out of the room, leaning heavily on a cane that he began using after Stokes shot him three times at close range on May 13, 2002.

Blackwell's carefully chosen words - along with comments by Ravenell and court motions that have been filed - suggest that the defense will try to focus jurors' attention on Stokes' credibility.

Blackwell said: "I fervently hope that the process will reveal what I know to be the case, that my accuser is a mentally disturbed young man and was a mentally ill youth long before he met me."

One of Ravenell's court motions referenced Stokes' testimony in his own trial, during which he claimed he had an "out-of-body experience" at the time of the shooting. Ravenell said he believes that Stokes, who he said has admitted to having delusions, imagined the alleged molestation by Blackwell. In December, a Circuit Court judge denied Ravenell's request to have Stokes undergo a new psychological evaluation, but some previous evaluations can still be used.

Impugning the alleged victim's character is a trial strategy that parallels the one used by Stokes' lawyer, Warren A. Brown, in successfully defending his client against attempted murder charges in a December 2002 trial.

But Brown said Ravenell will have a challenge trying to show that Stokes, if psychologically impaired at all, was so before his association with Blackwell.

"To say that Dontee is mentally ill is absurd," said Brown, who indicated he, too, has been called to testify at Blackwell's trial. "But certainly Maurice Blackwell's dehumanizing treatment of him has had some effects. And there's not a scintilla of proof that Dontee had any problems before Blackwell came along."

Religious references

Blackwell's statement also was laced with references to religion. He said he would draw strength from the Biblical figure Job, "who fought for his vindication in the face of universal disbelief in him, and who was anything but silent."

The defrocked priest lashed out at the Catholic Church, in which he was once a prominent black leader.

"I still believe that God will see me through this ordeal even though the church has forsaken me," he said.

In 1974, Blackwell became one of the first two African-Americans to be ordained by the Archdiocese Of Baltimore. For two decades, he presided over St. Edward's, where the congregation grew from 100 to 900 families. His dynamic sermons and numerous community service projects helped him rise to prominence.

Baltimore police investigated Stokes' claims of molestation in 1993, when Stokes was 17, but prosecutors declined to bring charges because they said they had no corroborating evidence. Blackwell was returned to his welcoming congregation, and the Stokes family said it was ostracized.

But five years later, Blackwell was stripped of his church authority after admitting to having a sexual relationship with another teenage boy in the early 1970s. The archdiocese announced in December that Pope John Paul II had defrocked Blackwell in an irrevocable decree.

Church 'abandoned me'

Blackwell said yesterday that the church hierarchy "has abandoned me, apparently presuming my guilt" and that it "orchestrated my defrocking and then managed to leak the information to the press shortly before my trial was scheduled to start in December 2004."

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Baltimore church leaders found out about the pope's decree just before the December trial date and made the decision not to publicize the information "for fear of having an impact on the case.

"But we decided that if we were asked, we would respond truthfully," he said, adding the an Associated Press reporter called with questions about Blackwell that he said were prompted by the defrocking of two priests in Ireland.

Blackwell's trial has been postponed six times since his indictment in May 2003. The former priest said yesterday that some have suggested to him that pleading guilty to at least one charge would perhaps have been a "safer course" than going to trial.

"I refuse to make a mockery of my conscience and live with myself as a liar," he said. "I choose to trust the integrity of this system to prove my innocence. In other words, I would rather risk an unjust verdict than admit to acts I did not commit."

With those ending words, he closed the black leather binder holding his typed statement and rose from his seat at the table.

To read the full text of Maurice Blackwell's statement, go to baltimoresun.com/blackwell.

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