Cardinal William Henry Keeler dead at 86

WIliiam E. Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore, spoke about the many accomplishments of Cardinal William H. Keeler who died earlier this morning. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Friends and colleagues from across religious and political spectrums remembered Cardinal William Henry Keeler as a spiritual leader of historic stature, a man of great empathy, and a cleric who never stopped reaching out to establish common cause with people of other faiths and backgrounds.

Cardinal Keeler, the longtime leader of the Archdiocese of Baltimore whose influence in the Catholic Church spanned international borders over nearly six decades, died Thursday. He was 86.


"We lost this morning our great shepherd, great leader and great friend," Archbishop William E. Lori said at the Basilica of the Assumption, America's first cathedral. "He was truly a visionary leader, a gentleman and a very kind man."

Marc B. Terrill, executive director of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said he learned during a 19-year friendship with the cardinal that he saw beyond cultural divides to what really mattered in life.


"He cared deeply about people, all people, no matter the religion, the race or the creed," Mr. Terrill said. "To him, people were people — period."

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

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

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


The cardinal was also thrust into the national spotlight 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 priests accused of abuse, detailing financial settlements and publicly apologizing for priests' crimes.

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. As a member of the Boy Scouts, he attained the rank of Eagle Scout.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., in 1952. He 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 modernized the church.

One of his responsibilities was to explain every document the council produced to journalists.

He was consecrated an auxiliary bishop of Harrisburg in 1979 and became the seventh bishop of Harrisburg in 1984.

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

Cardinal Keeler was elected president of the organization that became the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992. He chaired the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver attended by Pope John Paul.

He was created a cardinal by the pontiff in 1994.

Cardinal Keeler's achievements and his reputation helped draw Pope John Paul to Baltimore in 1995. Two years later, he prevailed on Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, to visit Baltimore.

From 1998 to 2001 and from late 2003 to 2006, Cardinal Keeler chaired the conference's Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

Cardinal Keeler developed a reputation for effectively building ecumenical and interfaith bonds, particularly with Protestants and Jews.

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," said Sean Caine, vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "He was a true champion of that relationship."

Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, agreed.

"Cardinal Keeler was a leader, not just in Baltimore but nationally and internationally, in working with different faiths," Mr. Libit said. "The relationship he forged with the Jewish community here in Baltimore earned him a great deal of respect and admiration, and built a foundation for future leaders of the archdiocese and future leaders of the Jewish community."

One of Cardinal 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.

The cardinal was also responsible for the effort to restore the Basilica. The costs of the restoration were funded entirely through private donations, to make sure services to the poor remained fully funded.

At around the same time, the church was rocked by the priest sex-abuse scandal.

Cardinal 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," Mr. Caine said. "He was a very principled man, a man of courage and strength."

Earlier that year, Cardinal 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. Mr. 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," Cardinal 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."

Cardinal Keeler submitted his letter of resignation to the Vatican in April 2006, a month after he turned 75, in accordance with canon law.

Friends and associates said Thursday that for all his achievements, Cardinal Keeler was a man who built much of his legacy on countless simple gestures and acts of kindness.


Many observed that by the time he was ready to undertake projects, he had spent years cultivating the kinds of connections that would make them possible.


Imam Earl El-Amin, spiritual leader of the Muslim Community Cultural Center in Baltimore, said he spent years working with the cardinal on projects "to try and improve the human condition," whether it was working to get a local public swimming pool kept open longer or to deal with the issue of land mines in foreign countries.

In 1996, Cardinal Keeler organized and led a delegation of Muslim leaders from across the U.S., including Mr. El-Amin, to the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul — a gesture the imam says inspired Catholic groups nationwide to reach out in greater solidarity to Muslims.

"He was always pushing the envelope with his colleagues to engage the Muslim community, the Hindus, the Buddhists, everyone," Mr. El-Amin said.

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore, said he still keeps a 1980s-era photo of Cardinal Keeler on his desk — one that also shows then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and former mayors William Donald Schaefer and Thomas D'Alesandro.

Cardinal Keeler, he recalled, had leveraged his friendships with the diverse group of Democrats toward the creation of a homeless shelter.

"It would probably only be Cardinal Keeler who could bring that group together," Mr. Schmoke said.

The shelter got built, he said.

During his 2006 trip to Italy, Cardinal Keeler and two friends were injured in a car crash about 60 miles outside Rome. One priest, a longtime friend of the cardinal's, was killed. Cardinal Keeler and the priest who was killed were passengers in the car. The cardinal suffered a broken ankle.

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

Cardinal Keeler will lie in state at the basilica from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday and at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. Tuesday. A funeral Mass is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the cathedral.

He's to be buried in the crypt beneath the main altar of the basilica, the final resting place of eight archbishops of Baltimore, including the first, Archbishop John Carroll, and Archbishop James Gibbons, who held the position for 44 years.

Archbishop Lori called that fitting.

"Cardinal Keeler will take his rest with them," he said. "He is a leader of [their] stature."