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St. Edward's fears loss of black leadership Church doubly stricken by accusation of abuse by priest

Shortly after the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell was removed from his pulpit over allegations of child sexual abuse, a sign and yellow ribbons materialized outside St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church proclaiming the parishioners' support for their pastor.

For the Catholic Church, the events at St. Edward's in West Baltimore followed an all too familiar pattern: A parish priest accused of molesting children; a devoted congregation in anguished denial.

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But in the case of St. Edward's, the potentially permanent departure of Father Blackwell includes an extra measure of despair. Not only does the church face the possibility of losing its longtime spiritual leader, but it also may be deprived of a man who helped the predominantly black congregation wed its Catholic faith to its African-American heritage.

In his 14 years at St. Edward's, Father Blackwell infused the church with African and African-American customs and rituals, a contribution, parishioners say, that made Catholicism much more vivid and relevant in their lives.

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An energetic man, often resplendent in African robes, Father Blackwell, 47, is credited with helping St. Edward's more than triple in size to about 300 families and to play an increasingly beneficent role in its poor West Baltimore neighborhood. Along the way, he also found time to help raise more than a dozen young men -- refugees from dysfunctional families, who lived with Father Blackwell in his rectory.

"Father Blackwell helped give our church its identity," said Carolyn Fugett, a longtime parishioner. Having Father Blackwell, black man, lead the church, "meant that we could relate. It meant we could worship in our style without feeling embarrassed."

"The main thing is, we all come to serve the Lord, but we all do it in different ways," she said.

Father Blackwell's life of accomplishment was stained two weeks ago when the Baltimore Archdiocese suspended him from his St. Edward's duties after a male, teen-age parishioner told Baltimore police and archdiocese officials that the priest had "inappropriately touched him." With the agreement of Father Blackwell, who denied the allegation, the archdiocese sent him to an undisclosed residential treatment center for "psychological evaluation." Meanwhile, the police investigation is continuing.

As it faces the prospect of losing a much-admired pastor, the wariness that St. Edward's parishioners have always felt toward the central authority of the archdiocese has become outright suspicion.

"There is a strong feeling that [Father Blackwell] is not being dealt with fairly," said Skip Sanders, a friend of the pastor for nearly 30 years. "There's a feeling that it is being rushed, that things are moving as if there is a presumption of guilt rather than innocence."

But Elinor Burkett, co-author of the forthcoming book, "A Gospel of Shame," an examination of the Catholic Church's response to sexual misconduct of its clergy, says that the Baltimore Archdiocese is in a delicate position. Too often, the church has been guilty of ignoring and covering up the sexual misbehavior of its priests, she said. That policy, though, has resulted in many more children being victimized and, not incidentally, costly legal settlements.

"I think with child sexual abuse, the presumption has to be made at least at the beginning in favor of guilt because you have to protect children," said Ms. Burkett, who lives in Baltimore. "This is not the justice system. The church can basically do what it wants. The church is protecting itself."

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Rob Rehg, a spokesman for the archdiocese, denies that the archdiocese is doing anything other than trying to determine whether the allegation against Father Blackwell is true. "We don't want them [accused priests] to live under a cloud of accusations," said Mr. Rehg, "but at the same time, we want to make sure we're being fair to our parishioners, especially the young ones."

He said that often, "evaluations" of priests by psychologists have led to confessions of misbehavior.

'Sense of pride'

St. Edward's parishioners insist there will be no such confession in this case, and they are unwilling to contemplate the church without Father Blackwell. In describing his role at the church, they make him sound irreplaceable. In at least some ways, they )) are very nearly right.

In May 1974, Maurice Blackwell's close friend, Donald Sterling, became the first black ordained in the Baltimore Archdiocese's 184-year history. A week later, Father Blackwell became the second. Today, they are the only two blacks presiding over parishes in the archdiocese even though there are 16 predominantly black churches.

That disparity is present across the country in the Catholic Church. Of 1,200 black Catholic churches in the United States, perhaps 100 are headed by African-American priests.

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"We anticipated that we were the beginning of many," Father Sterling, now pastor of All Saint's Church in Northwest Baltimore, says wistfully.

If the allegations against Father Blackwell are upheld, no one expects he would be succeeded at St. Edward's by a black priest. "We certainly would think that the probability of getting another one is low," said Bedford Bentley, the church council's president. "On the other hand, there was a church before him, and I'm sure there will be a church after him. Certainly, though, he brings a dimension to the church that will be missed if he doesn't return."

Roman Catholicism is far from the church of choice among African-Americans. Fewer than 2 million blacks -- 8.4 percent of the total -- are Catholics, ranking the denomination behind two Baptist conventions, the Church of God and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At St. Edward's, though, the charismatic Father Blackwell made Catholicism relevant to the black community. Single-handedly, he ushered African and African-American sensibilities into a religion that was heavily Europeanized.

Inside the imposing stone church on the corner of Poplar Grove )) Street and Lafayette Avenue, his influence is apparent everywhere, from the bust of Martin de Porres, a 17th-century saint who cared for black slaves, to the African kente cloth that hangs from the altar.

At weddings, he adopted the custom of having the bride and groom jump over broomsticks, an old slave custom. And before any meeting, he asked the oldest person in the room for permission to begin, a ritual borrowed from Africa. He brought gospel singing into the church and often wore African robes and urged others to do so too during many ceremonies.

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Lonely path

"He prompted a sense of pride in your heritage while maintaining the rich traditions of the Catholic faith," said CreSaundra Sills, the principal of the Sunday school.

The customs and rituals, Father Blackwell's admirers say, helped bind people to the church. Instead of merely passively accepting theology from above, they could feel that they were influencing the religion themselves. That was part of Father Blackwell's strategy. He believed that the Catholic Church had historically been guilty of a patronizing attitude toward its black parishioners.

That attitude was very much apparent at St. Mary's Seminary when Father Blackwell was a student there in the late '60s. "In every way, if you talked about poor people, it was from the perspective of how you reach down to these poor people and how you lift them up from their poor state," said Mr. Sanders, who was at the seminary before Father Blackwell. "The poor were simply considered bereft and not people who you could learn from."

Father Blackwell rebelled against that point of view, and a sign of his success is the present-day composition of St. Edward's. Many parishioners come from the poor Rosemont neighborhood that surrounds it, but they also include middle-class and affluent people who drive in from the suburbs each Sunday to attend Father Blackwell's Masses.

Mr. Sanders, who abandoned plans to join the clergy, said his way of reacting to the teachings at St. Mary's was "to become a white black man," to lose himself in the majority culture. But, he said, Father Blackwell refused to give in and instead searched for ways to make his racial heritage relevant to his faith.

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It was a lonely road, said Father Sterling, who also attended St. Mary's. While the archdiocese accepted the notion that the church had to make itself less forbidding to blacks, there were few signposts to guide him as a black priest. He is not surprised that few have followed him. "I have had people who said they didn't want their son to go through what we went through, the suffering, the loneliness we've had to endure as black priests."

A parent

But Father Blackwell was not one to brood. He was a man who loved to sing and to laugh. And to dance. "He loved to surprise people if he were at a parish party," said Mr. Sanders, an administrator with the Maryland Department of Education. "He would take to the dance floor, and everyone else would end up sitting down before he was done. And he always knew the latest dance."

Father Sterling said that for solace and advice, he and Father Blackwell often turned not to their fellow priests, but to black clergy from other Christian denominations.

Like other inner-city ministers, Father Blackwell found ways to make his church an influence in his community. His biggest achievement along that line was the opening last year of a health clinic in St. Edward's former convent.

But for about 20 young men, Father Blackwell was more than a spiritual adviser. He was a parent.

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During his career at St. Edward's, Father Blackwell invited certain troubled teen-agers -- youngsters from broken and dysfunctional homes -- to live with him in the rectory. Today, they refer to him as their father.

"You could want no more," said Anthony Weaver, who lived with Father Blackwell from age 16 to 24. "He took you in as a parent and treated you as if you were a son. He showed you how life should be for a child."

As for the allegation against Father Blackwell, Mr. Weaver, 28 years old now and a contractor for J. C. Penney, says, "I know him. He's not that kind of man."


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