May 20, 2002
IGO BY WHAT I hear from my 88-year-old mother, Rose, the most ardent Catholic I know. She's disgusted with the whole thing. I don't get any of the Roman Catholic warrior stuff from her on this one. Rose is more angry than sad, and so, based on this -- the most accurate measure available to me -- I believe the church is in bigger trouble than it realizes.
Trust me: This is a woman who never spoke ill of the church and chastised those who did. She lived in awe of its gilded trappings and its hierarchy, raised money, taught us respect for the Roman Catholic life, and hinted heavily and frequently that she'd love one of her sons to enter the seminary.
Two weeks ago, Rose sat down and wrote a letter asking me if any of the priests we knew as kids, the men in vestments my brothers and I served as altar boys, ever touched us. And that's what this has come to -- Rose Rosary Beads sitting alone at a kitchen table and writing to ask her adult sons this awful question.
To which we can all reply "No," unless someone is still keeping a secret.
One of my brothers laughed when my mother asked about the monsignor who was our pastor: "Ma, he liked women, not little boys!"
My mother listed all the priests we had known -- about seven curates -- and I think only one is still a priest.
She called me the other night to discuss the shooting -- allegedly by one Dontee Stokes -- of Father Blackwell here in Baltimore. And, even given spare details, Rose could surmise what has become increasingly clear in the week since the shooting: A priest accused of a sexual relationship with a minor stayed in parish life, reinstalled by his archbishop (because there just aren't enough priests to go around), and years later the alleged victim finally got angry enough to do something about it himself.
All he wanted, Dontee Stokes' family told The Sun, was an apology.
One finally trickled out -- in bits and pieces -- over the last few days. The archbishop who had reinstalled Blackwell years ago, Cardinal Keeler, said he regretted that decision and issued a general apology to the victims of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests.
Keeler's statement appeared in The Sun on Friday, along with a news account that contained this stunning sentence: "Keeler has no plans to apologize personally to Stokes or his family, said Raymond P. Kempisty, the archdiocesan chancellor."
And why not?
Not enough time for a house call on the cardinal's calendar? Lawyers advising against it? At this point, you'd have thought that the cardinal wanted to pay a personal visit to Stokes' large family -- at least to express admiration and thanks for their continued faith. Instead, we had the words "no plans to apologize personally" in print and the sense that Keeler still didn't see the need to make peace, no matter what the lawyers might be telling him, with Stokes and his relatives.
(Keeler changed his mind and finally apologized personally to the Stokes family over the weekend.)
It's because of this kind of muddled behavior -- along with the slow uptake on sexual abuse by hundreds of priests across the country, the reluctance to take responsibility for bad judgments -- that bishops and cardinals must now make peace with all the old faithful whose trust in the church hierarchy has been deeply cracked, if not shattered.
This crisis has been good for one thing. It has forced Catholics firm and Catholics fallen-off to reflect on the church through which they were first led to Christ.
I never discussed priesthood celibacy in depth with my mother until this crisis erupted in the church. But it turns out she feels, as I do, that celibacy is wonderful for those who believe it an important tradition, but foolish for those who want to see the Catholic priesthood replenished with men -- and, one day, women -- who will feel free to have healthy relationships of their own. This is not, in itself, the solution to priestly pedophilia, but it should be obvious by now that something about the Catholic priesthood attracts too many misfits. Even my 88-year-old rosary beads-clutching mother sees that.
But, back to the immediate matter of Father Blackwell.
A confession: I remember feeling sorry for him. I remember the accusations against him -- some nine years ago -- followed by the decision of police and prosecutors to drop their investigation. It had been a young man's word against his, and apparently the young man's allegation could not be proven. "The archdiocese is satisfied that the allegation is groundless," a spokesman said at the time. Many of Blackwell's parishioners wanted him back.
So, given all that we knew at the time, I didn't see how Blackwell could be deprived of an opportunity to return to his parish.
It turns out, however, that most who investigated the matter found that the allegations were not groundless, that Stokes' story was consistent and credible. A panel established to advise the archdiocese criticized Keeler's decision to do what, we have since learned, other bishops and cardinals have been doing for years -- returning to a parish a priest who had been accused of sexual deviance.
In 1998, this headline appeared in The Sun: "Archdiocese removes church's pastor after sex abuse admitted."
It was Father Blackwell again, this time admitting sexual abuse of a minor more than 20 years earlier.
The second allegation gave credibility to the first. The archdiocese took action against Blackwell. But did it revisit the earlier case, the one involving Dontee Stokes? Did it cause the cardinal to make peace with that family?
Not until after a gun went off. That's why the wound is graver than the church realizes.