Crisis lands on Keeler's doorstep

Cardinal: A consummate churchman's leadership now being questioned.

May 19, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

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.

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