Cardinal William Henry Keeler, a leading voice against abortion, dies at 86

Cardinal William Henry Keeler
Cardinal William Henry Keeler is seen in 2005.
(Chiaki Kawajiri / Baltimore Sun)

Cardinal William Henry Keeler, the longtime leader of the Archdiocese of Baltimore whose influence in the Catholic Church spanned international borders over nearly six decades, has died at the age of 86.

The retired archbishop of Baltimore, who led the region’s nearly 500,000 Catholics from 1989 until 2007, died Thursday while under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor at St. Martin’s House for the Aged in Arbutus, the archdiocese announced.

During his 17 years as archbishop, Keeler hosted Pope John Paul II in 1995, voted in the conclave that chose Benedict XVI to succeed him, and raised well over $100 million for programs, schools and scholarships for low-income city students.

The cardinal was a leading national voice against abortion, and he built an international reputation for forging ties with believers of other faiths.

He was also thrust into the national spotlight by the priest sexual abuse scandal that gripped the church, when a Baltimore man shot a priest who was later convicted of molesting him as a child.

The cardinal was lauded by many for being the first in the nation to name accused priests, detailing financial settlements and publicly apologizing for priests’ crimes.

“He has been one of the leading statesmen of the Catholic Church throughout his career,” said Sean Caine, vice chancellor of the archdiocese. “He will be deeply missed and not forgotten.”

William Henry Keeler was born March 4, 1931, in San Antonio to Thomas and Margaret Keeler. The family moved to Lebanon, Pa., where he attended St. Mary School and Lebanon Catholic High School. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., in 1952 and studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood on July 17, 1955.

He quickly rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church. He earned a doctorate in canon law in 1961 and worked in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. Harrisburg Bishop George Leech invited him to accompany him to the Second Vatican Council, the ecumenical council from 1962 to 1965 that transformed the church.

One of his responsibilities was to explain every document the council produced, in English, to journalists. The council is credited with bringing the church into the modern world.

He was consecrated an auxiliary bishop of Harrisburg in 1979. He took as his episcopal motto Opus Fac Evangeliste — Do the Work of an Evangelist. He became the seventh bishop of Harrisburg in 1984.

In 1989, Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Baltimore, the nation’s first diocese.

Keeler was elected president of the organization that became the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992. He had been elected the organization’s vice president in 1989, while hosting the bicentennial celebration of the archdiocese. He chaired the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver attended by Pope John Paul II.

He was created a cardinal by the pontiff in 1994 and his achievements helped draw Pope John Paul to Baltimore in 1995.

Keeler developed a reputation for effectively building ecumenical and interfaith bonds, particularly with Protestants and Jews. He was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the summer of 1994 and to the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in November 1994.

He was instrumental in arranging Pope John Paul’s meetings with Jewish leaders in Miami and with Protestant leaders in South Carolina, and he participated in drafting the Catholic-Jewish reflection on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“He’s as beloved by those of the Jewish faith as he is by those of the Catholic faith,” Caine said. “He was a true champion of that relationship. It’s an important relationship, especially here in Baltimore where there is such a big Jewish and Catholic population.”

One of Keeler’s priorities was the strengthening of Catholic schools. His fundraising prowess led to a record-setting $100 million campaign in the early 1990s. He led efforts to raise a $25 million scholarship fund to help low-income Baltimore youth attend Catholic schools. Nearly 17,000 scholarships have been awarded, mostly to non-Catholic students.

Keeler was commended for his transparency when in September 2002 he released the names of 56 priests accused of sexual abuse in Baltimore since the 1930s and disclosed all information related to the nearly $6 million in settlements and other expenses the sexual abuse had cost the archdiocese.

“He was the first bishop to release the names of every priest who had been credibly accused,” Caine said. “He was a very principled man, a man of courage and strength.”

Earlier that year. Keeler publicly apologized to those who had been sexually abused by priests, and said he regretted his decision in 1993 to return the Rev. Maurice Blackwell to his parish after an abuse allegation.

Father Blackwell was shot in May 2002 by 26-year-old Dontee D. Stokes. Stokes, who was acquitted later that year of attempted murder, said he had been molested by the priest in 1993.

“I take full responsibility for the decision I made in 1993 given the facts and circumstances before me,” Keeler wrote in an opinion piece published in The Baltimore Sun on May 17, 2002. “In light of what has occurred and of what was revealed in 1998, I would not make the same decision today.”

Keeler submitted his letter of resignation to the Vatican in April 2006, a month after he turned 75, in accordance with canon law. Bishops must retire at age 80.

The cardinal and two friends were injured in a car crash about 60 miles outside Rome that October. One priest, a longtime friend of Keeler’s, was killed. Keeler and the priest who was killed were passengers in the car. The cardinal suffered a broken ankle.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Edwin F. O’Brien to succeed Keeler in 2007. Cardinal Keeler remained in Baltimore at St. Martin’s House and was serving as president of the Basilica Historic Trust at the time of his death.

Donovan and Kelly write for the Baltimore Sun.