A West Baltimore priest has been accused of sexual abuse, forcing the Baltimore Archdiocese for the third time in a month to confront questions about sexual misconduct by its clergy.
The Rev. Maurice Blackwell, pastor of St. Edward Church in Rosemont since 1979, was indefinitely relieved of duties late last week after Baltimore police informed the archdiocese that it was investigating a complaint that he had "inappropriately touched" a male teen-age parishioner.
Rob Rehg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said yesterday that Father Blackwell, 47, has denied the allegation but had consented to a psychological evaluation at a residential treatment center, which Mr. Rehg declined to identify.
The new allegations closely follow two recent episodes that have focused attention on the the sexual misconduct of local Roman Catholic priests.
In August, a Baltimore County parish priest with a history of sexual abuse committed suicide after being newly accused of molesting a young boy 10 years earlier.
And last week, the archdiocese agreed to settle a lawsuit with a woman who was molested as a teen-ager by an assistant pastor at St. Martin's Catholic Church in West Baltimore.
At nearby St. Edward, most of Father Blackwell's congregation of about 300 families first learned of the allegations against their pastor Friday evening when Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard of Baltimore met with parish leaders at the church.
On Sunday, the bishop returned to the church where he replaced Father Blackwell at the 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Masses and announced that Father Blackwell had been placed on administrative leave.
He invited the parishioners to meet with him after the second Mass to explain what had happened.
According to Mr. Rehg, the police investigation began when the alleged victim told a therapist about the alleged abuse.
As required by law, the therapist then reported the allegation to authorities.
In the archdiocese's formal statement, it noted that "the minor has been consistent in his statement during numerous interviews" with both police investigators and church officials.
Still, those who knew Father Blackwell refused to believe he would be involved in such behavior.
"All I can say about Father Blackwell is that he was a holy man and that he worked hard at the church," said Joseph Neale, a church deacon.
Mr. Neale credited Father Blackwell with helping to double the church's membership in his 14-year tenure.
Named the nation's Outstanding Catholic Youth of the Year in 1964, Father Blackwell was known as an outspoken advocate for programs for blacks within the archdiocese, according to Brother Martin De Porres Smith, a friend and admirer.
"I would say he's the one who speaks up for black folks and challenges the diocese to look at the plight of black people in the church," said Brother Smith.
"Without him, I think it would be business as usual," he said.
He credited Father Blackwell with prompting the archdiocese to open an office dedicated to black parishioners.
Late yesterday afternoon, Howard Gittings, a retired city police officer, arrived at St. Edward, at Poplar Grove Street and Prospect Avenue, for a Boy Scouts meeting.
"When I heard about this, I like to die," said Mr. Gittings. "The priest is the godfather for my two girls. He's the godfather for a lot of kids in the neighborhood."
Mr. Gittings said the police came to the church on Sept. 7 and asked Father Blackwell to come downtown for questioning.
Mr. Gittings said he learned of the abuse allegation the next day and spoke briefly with the priest about it.
"I know he was upset," Mr. Gittings said.
"He said he was going to cooperate with everybody," he said.
Mr. Gittings said he recalled the priest saying, "I don't have anything to hide."