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July 5, 2005

Baltimore’s Morally Criminal Cardinal

Roy Meachum

Although his name appeared nowhere on Saturday’s (Baltimore) Sun front page, the real story was how Cardinal William Keeler triumphantly avoided further revelation of his direct complicity in the sexual abuse of a young man and endangered others.

The paper reported the city’s state’s attorney Patricia Jessamy’s announcement she would not put Maurice Blackwell on trial again. The now-defrocked priest’s earlier conviction on three charges of sexual child abuse was set aside on the basis that alleged victim Dontee Stokes and two investigating detectives cited the former pastor’s other prey.

Mr. Stokes captured headlines three years ago by wounding the man that a February trial found guilty of abusing and raping him over a three year period. The former altar boy was brutalized once more by Ms. Jessamy’s craven surrender to election year politics and the power wielded by the nation’s oldest Catholic archdiocese.

When Mr. Stokes’ cries for justice first surfaced in 1993, Baltimore’s ordinary not only turned a deaf ear, he overruled a committee he appointed, which strongly recommended the alleged abuser be kept away from the church’s youth. He insisted on assigning the alleged predator back to the rectory where Mr. Stokes claimed he was repeatedly forced into degrading sex acts.

Even after another former altar boy came forward, with similar complaints, Cardinal Keeler removed Mr. Blackwell as a pastor. He was instead assigned a prestigious position with an interfaith housing group, representing the archdiocese.

Only when Dontee Stokes shot his alleged tormentor, claiming his request for an apology had met with scornful laughter, did the archdiocese suspend Mr. Blackwell’s priestly faculties. Of course, the young man was arrested and thrown in jail.

To add to Mr. Stokes’ trauma, the cardinal-archbishop refused initially to meet with him or his family, which is very prominent among Maryland’s historically Catholic African Americans. Some relatives left the church in disgust.

That stance of haughty above-it-all indifference changed under the weight of rising public indignation and the resignation of the archdiocesan chancellor, who was additionally his chief spokesman and public relations adviser.

Avoiding the embarrassment of a face-to-face meeting, William Keeler telephoned Dontee Stokes’ mother, while maintaining studied distance from her son. He declined pleas to join calls for the dismissal of all charges, citing the church’s need to refrain from interference in non-ecclesiastical affairs. Another cop out! Mr. Stokes served 18 months of home detention.

Finally, given little choice, but accompanied by a priest, Baltimore’s archbishop paid a 90-minute visit on the man whose life he had badly bruised; his gesture was officially announced as an apology. The press was not present.

These are the events summarized over the past 12 years, which brand the cardinal at least morally guilty of acting as an accessory to sexual abuse. This being Maryland, America’s original Catholic colony, the idea of legally indicting a prelate, whatever the evidence, would cause the Bromo Seltzer tower along with the rest of downtown to fall into the Inner Harbor. It‘s not going to happen.

Meanwhile, the Roman curia dismisses everything as inventions of godless, headline-hungry media. Burrowing down on the other side of the Tiber River, the assorted cardinals, clerics and Vatican nobility live in a world epitomized by their Swiss guards. They still operate under the proposition the whole world continues to pay obeisance to the pope, as it did in the 16th century when Michelangelo designed the guards’ uniforms. Church law demands William Keeler submit his resignation to Rome next year; he turns 75 in March. Whatever it takes, he needs – and the Vatican wants – to avoid the resurgent publicity a new trial would bring. Next year’s elections provided the perfect cover to kill the case that brought February’s guilty findings. With the state’s attorney’s job once again on the line, Ms. Jessamy doesn’t want to rouse the clout of the city’s omnipotent white establishment: she is black.

Although weakened by flight to the suburbs, Baltimore’s fate rests still in the hands of bankers and mercantile princes determined to restore Charm City to its leading position among the nation’s foremost business centers. Continuing the Dontee Stokes’ scandal would be, at the minimum, counterproductive to their goal. They welcome Pope Benedict XVI favorite William Keeler to their midst.

There’s the cardinal’s insurance against being hauled into court, even by reputation. Taking on the white, heavily Catholic establishment presents huge problems the state’s attorney’s reelection campaign simply doesn’t need. There’s more.

Cardinal Keeler’s reach extends further. He acts as the national bishop’s conference’s chief link with America’s Jewish community, which is particularly formidable in Baltimore. As a matter of self-protection, the historically persecuted minority tends to cherish and protect its “friends.”

Without the religious factor, there exists a compelling pragmatic reason for Patricia Jessamy to keep her skirts out of the mess created by William Keeler. She wants at all costs to avoid further friction with Mayor Martin O’Malley. Both Democrats, they have snickered at each other over the years. A new trial could provoke open warfare.

In order to push aside Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan for their party’s gubernatorial nomination and challenge Republican incumbent Robert Ehrlich, Mr. O’Malley needs every ounce of muscle Baltimore can offer. And that means his fellow Catholics united behind him.

For Ms. Jessamy to revive recollection of their spiritual leader’s total lack of Christian caring in handling Mr. Blackwell’s dehumanizing assaults on an altar boy would, at least, risk alienating party conservatives who could whistle up money to put her on the street.

A new Stokes trial risks divisiveness not only among white Catholics but African Americans who overwhelmingly embrace the Democratic Party. To summon up the establishment’s shameful treatment of Dontee Stokes, as the next election year approaches, offers the potential of confirming Republican claims Democrats take Maryland’s blacks for granted.

Announcing the decision not to try the defrocked priest again, the state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman dished up a mix of whipped cream and peanut butter. She let it be known, his lack of a previous criminal record would probably result in probation only, no jail time. If things came to that, her boss would look even more fatuously self-serving, if you can imagine that.

Lt. Frederick Roussey, identified as a former child-abuse detective, looks to me like the sole honest man in Baltimore’s corridors of justice. The current president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police conducted the 1993 investigation of Mr. Stokes’ complaints. He told The Sun he believes the state’s attorney’s office simply wants nothing to do with the case, never has. That explains the lack of prosecution 12 years ago.

In Saturday’s story, Lt. Roussey was quoted: “I can sleep at night. I know I didn’t fail Dontee. The court system failed him.”

Let me add: “And his church.”

Justice wears a blindfold because it is supposed to treat all comers equally. Christianity, on the other hand, is based on the existential proposition that it will care for the least among us, as Jesus preached. Perverted to protecting a Catholic prince at the price of the weak makes mockery of everything churches proclaim.

Given the failure of civil authorities to call him to account, Baltimore’s archbishop, Cardinal William Keeler, stands revealed as a moral criminal according to every principle and teaching I learned from the Order of Holy Cross.

Given his self-serving hypocrisy, Willie should have the decency to throw his red hat in the Inner Harbor and get out of town.

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