In the months that clergy sexual abuse of children has embroiled the American Catholic Church, Cardinal William H. Keeler has skirted the scandal.

He has only reluctantly addressed the issue, speaking out much later than many of his fellow cardinals. In his public statements, he has used carefully crafted, sometimes legalistic language. Exasperated with the intense scrutiny of the church, he blamed a media "feeding frenzy."

Now the scandal has arrived on his doorstep. First were allegations by a former nun that she was raped by a priest and that Keeler was dismissive of her. Then last week, Baltimore drew national attention when a young man was accused of shooting a priest he claimed sexually abused him as a teen. Keeler had allowed the priest to return to his parish over the objections of a lay review board.

The silver-haired cardinal, described by many as a consummate churchman who goes to great lengths to avoid controversy, now finds himself in the center of what is perhaps the greatest crisis ever to face the American church.

Keeler's decision to return the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell to his West Baltimore parish after the 1993 abuse allegation has been harshly criticized by many Baltimore Catholics. And his response to last week's events - refusing to answer questions about Blackwell and declining for days to apologize to Dontee D. Stokes about the abuse and the church's flawed handling of the case - has caused some to question his leadership.

"I'm disappointed. I think if he would have taken some action in the past, we wouldn't be in this situation," said Catherine Bowen, a parishioner at the Church of the Ascension in Halethorpe. "I still believe strongly in my religion. I'm just a little worried about our leadership."

"The bishops just aren't leading," said Fred Ruof, a liberal church activist who knew Keeler when both were priests in the Diocese of Harrisburg. "It saddens me to think Bill Keeler is in that set, but I don't see any evidence that he's not."

The 71-year-old Keeler, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is a significant figure in the national and international religious scene. He is considered an expert in interfaith dialogue. Conservative and loyal, he is a trusted adviser to Pope John Paul II, who jauntily greets Keeler as "Baltimore." The cardinal travels to Rome as many as a half-dozen times a year, where his fluent Italian allows him to mix easily with Vatican insiders.

Many believe his years as a church bureaucrat, formulating policy and working in the cloistered walls of the chancery building, shape Keeler's cautious and seemingly defensive response to the national sex-abuse crisis.

"I think he's probably perceived as a competent administrator, but he's not a person who wants to get into controversy," said the Rev. William Au, pastor of SS. Philip and James Parish in Charles Village and a former spokesman for the archdiocese. "He's not inclined to put himself on the forefront of this issue."

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and Baltimore psychotherapist who was one of the first to bring the issue of abuse by priests to public attention, recalled that in the mid-1990s, Keeler sent an emissary to persuade Sipe to cancel a lecture about his recently published book on priestly pedophilia.

"The cardinal is probably one of the most politically savvy of all the cardinals in the country. He plays things safe and is very concerned about avoiding any scandal," Sipe said.

A man on the rise

Born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in Lebanon, Pa., Keeler joined the seminary after high school and "was quickly spotted as a man on the rise," said Ruof, who was several years behind Keeler in the seminary. He was sent to Rome in 1956 to study at Pontifical Gregorian University, a training ground for future bishops.

After his ordination in 1957, he spent less than a decade working in parishes. He was sent to Rome again, this time to earn a doctorate in canon law, and was appointed an adviser to the bishops meeting during the historic Second Vatican Council during the mid-1960s.

By 1979, Keeler was appointed auxiliary bishop of Harrisburg and became bishop four years later. Even then, Keeler was making a name and making an impression on John Paul II.

In 1987, former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi connections had recently been revealed, was received by the pope at the Vatican. Jewish leaders worldwide protested, and a group of Jewish leaders scheduled to meet with the pope that year in Miami threatened to boycott the meeting.

Keeler, who was knowledgeable about Catholic-Jewish relations, intervened. The Jewish leaders, confident that their concerns were relayed to the highest level, agreed to meet with the pope.

In 1989, Keeler was appointed archbishop of Baltimore, taking over for the more liberal William D. Borders. Although Baltimore is not among the largest dioceses in the country, it is considered a prestigious appointment because it was founded as the first archdiocese in the United States and carries the title of the "Premier See."

Keeler had the reputation of being a conservative "company man," and some priests feared he would launch a crackdown. "But none of that happened," said the pastor of a suburban parish, who asked not to be identified. "All the major appointments of Archbishop Borders were left in place and are largely still in place to this day."

But relief, he said, turned to disappointment.

"Even before this tragedy hit, there was a malaise, a kind of growing sense that we didn't have direction," the priest said. "We didn't have inspiration. We didn't really have leadership."

Keeler is very involved in developing policy on issues including the church's anti-abortion efforts, relations with the Orthodox Church, and its campaign to persuade Hollywood to limit sexual and violent content.

Observers agreed that Keeler delegates much of the day-to-day running of the archdiocese to Bishop W. Francis Malooly, his most trusted adviser.

"If Keeler is the chief executive officer, Malooly is the chief operating officer of the archdiocese," said the Rev. Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish downtown.

Both Malooly and Keeler consult closely with Richard O. Berndt, managing partner with Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, the law firm that represents the archdiocese. Berndt advises the cardinal about the sexual-abuse crisis, but his influence is much more far-reaching, observers say. Keeler also relies on Raymond P. Kempisty, a lawyer and Navy veteran, to handle media relations. He sometimes makes his advisers wince, though, when he gets off-message or makes statements that seem inappropriate.

The combination of Keeler's focus on larger policy issues, his lack of parish experience and his natural reserve might convey the impression that Keeler is aloof, which some agree with, but others say is misleading.

"He's not a backslapper by any means," Lawrence said. "But he's not stand-offish. He's involved in national stuff and international stuff so much that people in the parishes say they wish they'd see more of him."

But one pastor said Keeler doesn't exude warmth: "I think there is a great deal of respect for his management competency, but a greater sense of personal distance between him and his priests. There's not any sense of personal closeness or concern for them."

Those factors could also account for Keeler's response to the sexual abuse crisis. He initially declined to speak about it and said he would not conduct a review of the archdiocese's personnel files for past cases of abuse by priests because Baltimore's policies had been stringent since the mid-1980s.

Keeler attracted attention when he complained at a news conference April 16 that the scandal over priests molesting children had been largely driven by the news media. He has also refused to release information detailing the number of abuse cases, their outcomes and any monetary settlements involving priests in the archdiocese over the years.

Former nun's allegation

Two weeks ago, Keeler was confronted with an allegation by Rita Monahan, a former nun and church volunteer who said that the Rev. Thomas Schwind raped her in 1989 and that Keeler covered it up. The archdiocese said her claim was not credible, and Keeler denied trying to cover it up.

Then last week came Blackwell's shooting.

"I am appalled that another act of violence has occurred in the city of Baltimore and that tragedy touches a person I have known personally," Keeler said. He chose then not to apologize to the alleged abuse victim and shooting suspect, Stokes.

But rising criticism apparently changed his mind; he apologized publicly Friday at a noontime Mass.

Later Friday, he visited Dontee Stokes' grandfather, Charles P. Stokes Sr., to apologize for the handling of the case in 1993. He spoke by phone yesterday with Dontee Stokes' mother, Tamara Stokes, and said he will meet with Dontee soon.

Keeler has faced criticism for overruling his lay review board, which criticized the cardinal's decision in 1993 to return Blackwell to his parish, despite the apparent veracity of the allegations against him.

Some critics view that decision as an endorsement of the priest and a repudiation of Stokes, whose allegations were credible to prosecutors, archdiocesan officials and the lay panel. Keeler, those critics believe, bears some responsibility for the shooting.

'Fingerprints on gun'

"He was appalled that there was another act of violence in Baltimore City," says Elizabeth Murphy, a victim of Catholic school teacher John Merzbacher, who was convicted in 1995 of rape. "What is appalling is his fingerprints are as much on that gun as the young man's fingerprints on that gun. And he doesn't make that connection."

Sipe, the former Baltimore psychotherapist who was one of the first to write about clergy sex abuse, called the Blackwell shooting Keeler's "mistake coming home to roost.

"This is a victim who was neglected and was bypassed by him," he said. "If this victim had been taken care of, very likely this would not have happened."

Some who have worked closely with Keeler say they believe he feels deeply about the pain of victims but has a hard time articulating it.

"I genuinely feel that he feels the pain of these situations. I think he finds it so appalling that it is very difficult for him to place it into words," said Bill Blaul, who was Keeler's spokesman from 1994 until 1997.

The irony of this situation, say some, is that Keeler was a pioneer in drafting sexual abuse policies, both in Baltimore and when he was president of the U.S. bishops' conference in the early 1990s.

"As a leader of the bishops ... he was one of the first to say 'We've got to take this seriously,' and I think he feels he took the lead in raising this to the national level," said the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, president and rector of St. Mary's Seminary & University. "I think he feels betrayed by what happened, that a number of dioceses didn't do that and in effect have made the whole Catholic Church in our country look suspect."

But as befits a man who works best behind the scenes, you won't find Keeler publicly criticizing his brother bishops.

"He doesn't spend a lot of time pointing out the faults of others," Leavitt said. "He spends more trying to work for solutions."