Survivors hail Stokes as a hero for abuse victims

Maurice Blackwell leaves the courthouse in Baltimore after being convicted of the sexual abuse of Dontee Stokes when Stokes was a child. He is free until sentencing, scheduled for April 15.
Clergy abuse survivor groups hailed Dontee Stokes yesterday as a hero whose victory in court against his former priest would serve as a beacon for other victims.

"Dontee could have tried to run from this, bury this, deny this and let [Maurice] Blackwell abuse again," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. "He courageously chose to face this. That's why we consider him heroic."

By contrast, the official Roman Catholic Church response was decidedly more subdued as the Archdiocese Of Baltimore simply noted that it had relieved the former West Baltimore priest of his duties years ago.

The guilty verdict was quickly spread across the country by SNAP and other advocacy groups, which have closely monitored the Baltimore proceedings. Since it came just days after defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley, a notorious figure in the Boston Archdiocese's abuse scandal, was sentenced for raping a boy in the 1980s, victims groups treated the verdict as part of a larger message.

"It's been a very hopeful week," said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer from St. Paul, Minn., who has represented thousands of victims of abuse. "Survivors are being believed. All those barriers heaped upon them by way of shame and imbalance of power are being broken - now you're going to see much more frequent prosecution."

And Stokes' supporters said the extenuating circumstances of his case - he shot his abuser in 2002, was acquitted of attempted murder but convicted on gun charges - did not detract from the victory of yesterday's verdict.

Since 1965, 271 priests have been convicted of sexual abuse, according to Bishops Accountability, a group that tracks criminal prosecution. Fifty-eight of those convictions have come since 2003, a year after the abuse crisis came to light nationally.

A study commissioned by the church last year found that about 4,400 priests, or 4 percent of the U.S. priesthood, have been accused of abuse since 1950. Several hundred of the accused priests are living and have been removed from ministry, church officials have acknowledged.

Statutes of limitations have stymied many prosecutions, but Anderson said cultural obstacles are also at issue. He said too many civil authorities defer to religious leaders. "We, as a culture, have just refused to believe that the most trusted among us could also be the most dangerous," he said.

Even Tamara Stokes Morrison, Stokes' mother, said yesterday that she was at first reluctant to believe that her son could be abused by a man who was a pillar of the community. "I said, 'No, it couldn't be Father Blackwell. Maybe somebody else, but not the priest.'

"Who would think it was a priest of the church?"

In contrast to the jubilant victims' advocates, local and national church authorities offered little comment yesterday.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the group would not comment on the case because "we would consider that a local matter."

The Rev. Samuel L. Lupico, pastor of St. Edward where Blackwell was a popular pastor from 1979 until 1998, did not take calls. The church's receptionist said officials there would have no comment.

The Archdiocese Of Baltimore issued a two-paragraph statement that began: "The recent criminal proceedings involving Maurice Blackwell were independent of the processes and standards employed by the Catholic Church, which revoked his faculties to function as a priest several years ago and dismissed him from the clerical state in 2004."

It went on to state that anyone with knowledge of abuse involving church officials should call the Archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection Hotline at 1-866-417-7469.