Cardinal William H. Keeler – Biography

14th Archbishop of Baltimore

Motto: Opus Fac Evangelistae. “Do The Work of an Evangelist.”

William Henry Keeler was born March 4, 1931 in San Antonio, Texas, the son of Thomas L. Keeler and Margaret T. (Conway) Keeler. He was raised in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he attended St. Mary School and Lebanon Catholic High School. He received a B.A. from St. Charles Seminary, Overbrook, Philadelphia, in 1952 and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1956.

Ordained a priest on July 17, 1955 in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Rome by Archbishop (and future Cardinal) Luigi Traglia, the young cleric became assistant pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Marysville, and secretary of the diocesan Tribunal (1956-1958). He was then assigned to study Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In 1961, he received his doctorate in Canon Law and was reappointed by Bishop George L. Leech as assistant pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. At the same time he was named Defender of the Bond of the diocesan Tribunal. In 1964, he was appointed pastor of the Marysville parish.

As secretary to Bishop Leech during the Second Vatican Council meetings in Rome (1962-1965), he was appointed peritus or “special advisor” to the Council by Pope John XXIII. During the Council, he also served on the staff of the Council Digest, a daily communication service sponsored by the United States Bishops.

In 1965, he was appointed to serve as Vice Chancellor of the Harrisburg Diocese and, in time, Chancellor (1969) and later Vicar General. He held the latter position when he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Harrisburg and Titular Bishop of Ulcinium (Dulcigno) by Pope John Paul II on July 24, 1979. His episcopal ordination occurred on September 21, 1979, at St Patrick Cathedral, Harrisburg.

On September 3, 1983, he was elected Administrator of the Diocese of Harrisburg by the College of Consultors following the death of Bishop Joseph T. Daley. Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Harrisburg on November 10, 1983, and he was installed as Bishop on January 4, 1984, by His Eminence John Cardinal Krol, Archbishop of Philadelphia.

He was appointed Archbishop of Baltimore by Pope John Paul II on April 11, 1989, and was formally installed as 14th Ordinary of the nation’s oldest See on May 23 in ceremonies at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Cardinal Keeler was appointed to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II on November 28, 1994. The Consistory ceremony took place in the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall, Vatican City State.

An influential participant in a wide range of national and international issues, Cardinal Keeler was elected President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and the United States Catholic Conference in November 1992. He had been elected as the organizations’ Vice President in November of 1989, when he hosted Baltimore’s bicentennial celebration of the founding of America’s first Roman Catholic diocese.

As part of his work with the NCCB, Cardinal Keeler developed a reputation for effectively building interfaith bonds. He is particularly noted for his work in furthering Catholic-Jewish dialogue and serves as moderator of Catholic-Jewish relations for the USCCB. He was a longtime member of the International Catholic Orthodox Commission for Theological Dialogue. As Chair of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs from 1984 to November 1987, he helped arrange the Pope’s meetings with Jewish leaders in Miami and with Protestant leaders in Columbia, S.C., during the 1987 papal visit. The Archbishop 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 hosted the 1997 visit of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to Baltimore. From 1998-2001 and again from November 2003-2006, he served as Chair for the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

In addressing clergy sexual abuse in Baltimore, Cardinal Keeler strengthened archdiocesan policies related to child and youth protection, requiring all employees and volunteers who work with children to undergo safe-environment training through a new program called “STAND.” Fingerprinting of employees became mandatory, and background checks were also required for both employees and volunteers.

In September 2002, Cardinal Keeler became one of only a handful of bishops in the nation to release the names of clergy – living and dead – who had been credibly accused of the sexual abuse of children. Fifty-seven names were published in the Catholic Review and made available to the secular press.

Cardinal Keeler became the first cardinal in the nation to take the witness stand in a criminal trial related to the clergy sex abuse scandal when he testified for the defense in the attempted murder of Maurice J. Blackwell, a defrocked priest accused of sexually abusing Dontee D. Stokes. Stokes shot and wounded Blackwell, but a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found Stokes not guilty in 2003.

In 2018, a Grand Jury Report in Pennsylvania found that Cardinal Keeler, while bishop of Harrisburg, failed to protect children from predatory priests in his diocese.

While Archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal Keeler established as one of his priorities as leader of the oldest Catholic See in the United States, the strengthening of the Catholic school system. In 1996, he helped to start “Partners in Excellence,” a program designed to help needy families and at-risk youth afford the cost of Catholic education through the help of corporate partnerships. To date, more than 16,500 scholarships have been awarded.

Cardinal Keeler was also a vigilant leader of the pro-life movement and an outspoken advocate for expanded evangelization throughout the parish community. In 1992 the Cardinal initiated the Lenten Appeal (now known as the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal), a giving campaign that to date has raised more than $70 million in support of area Catholic schools, the needs of the less fortunate and a variety of spiritual development efforts. He hosted the 1995 visit of St. John Paul II to Baltimore and led a campaign to restore the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.

Cardinal Keeler died March 23, 2017.