When he was the church’s chief enforcer of doctrine 25 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI declined to immediately defrock a California priest who admitted to child sexual abuse, saying he needed more time to consider the impact of the case on “the good of the Universal Church,” according to a letter released Friday.
The 1985 letter to Bishop John Cummins of Oakland is the latest document to shed light on Benedict’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis in his earlier career, when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and headed the Vatican office that ultimately assumed full responsibility for such cases. In it, he acknowledges the “grave significance” of the charges against the priest, Stephen Kiesle, who had pleaded no contest to charges of molesting two boys in 1978. But Ratzinger said he needed more time and information, in part because of the “detriment that [defrocking] can provoke with the community of Christ’s faithful.”
It would be another two years before the Vatican relented to the request, which apparently came on Kiesle’s initiative.
The revelation about the Ratzinger letter is likely to fuel debate over the pope’s role in the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic Church.
By itself, the Vatican letter suggests that Ratzinger was reluctant to act hastily in such a grave matter as defrocking a priest, something that is rarely done.
Church critics said it was part of a pattern by the Vatican of seeming more concerned about the church’s reputation than about the trauma of sexual abuse victims, about whom Ratzinger says nothing in the document.
“You have the diocese asking for it, the priest himself asking for it, and the Vatican’s the only one that’s thinking he shouldn’t be kicked out of the priesthood,” said Mike Finnegan, a Minnesota attorney whose firm represented two of Kiesle’s victims in Northern California lawsuits.
“The importance of defrocking someone is to establish that the priest did wrong in the eyes of the Vatican,” added Dan McNevin, director of the Oakland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The letter “says to me that the deck was stacked against kids to the highest level of the Vatican.”
However, Thomas Plante, a psychologist at Santa Clara University and author of “Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church,” cautioned that the Ratzinger letter should be considered in light of the era and of church doctrine.
“If this letter came across his desk today . . . I can’t imagine that what was done in ’85 would be done in 2010,” he said.
Anyway, he added, defrocking doesn’t always make sense in sexual abuse cases, especially those in which there has been no criminal conviction. “That’s not necessarily smart in terms of the protection of kids,” Plante said. “If you defrock them and throw them out, you don’t control them. . . . Is it better to keep them as a priest so they’re still under a vow of obedience and then put them on ice somewhere?”
A Vatican spokesman declined to comment on the substance of the letter Friday, but confirmed its authenticity.
“The press office doesn’t believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations,” Father Federico Lombardi said. “It is not strange that there are single documents which have Cardinal Ratzinger’s signature.”
The letter was first reported by the Associated Press and later obtained by The Times.
It was apparently written in response to letters from the Diocese of Oakland supporting Kiesle’s request to be removed from the priesthood. The diocese said it was concerned about his “questionable relationships with young children” and his lack of motivation and emotional maturity to be a priest.
In letters to the Vatican, Cummins cited a “great deal of publicity surrounding” Kiesle’s conduct and said “there might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry.”
Kiesle was sentenced to three years’ probation in 1978 on misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct stemming from his molestation of the two boys, ages 11 and 12. He was relieved of priestly duties that year. In his correspondence with the Vatican, Cummins reported Kiesle’s conviction for “having taken sexual liberties” with boys.
Despite the conviction, Kiesle was allowed to volunteer at a church in the Bay Area town of Pinole beginning in 1985, according to newspaper accounts -- the same year Ratzinger wrote the letter to the diocese. While in Pinole, he allegedly committed additional crimes. The Vatican defrocked him in 1987. He remained a volunteer until at least 1988, according to an attorney for two of Kiesle’s alleged victims.
In 2002, he was arrested on 13 counts related to child molestation, including two from his years as a volunteer and nine from his years as a priest. Those were all determined to have been before the statute of limitations, but Kiesle was convicted of the 1995 molestation of a young girl in Truckee, Calif., and sentenced to six years in prison.
Eventually, at least eight victims filed civil lawsuits against Kiesle, now 63, and the Diocese of Oakland over acts of molestation alleged to have occurred as far back as his early days in the seminary. Those cases were all settled in 2005. Lewis Van Blois, who represented six women who said they were abused as girls, said his clients received $8 million in the settlement.
The Catholic Church has been grappling publicly with the sexual abuse crisis for well over a decade, but the scandal has taken on new urgency in recent weeks as new cases have surfaced in Germany, Austria, Norway and other countries. At the same time, questions have arisen about Benedict’s handling of molestation cases when he was archbishop of Munich and later when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome from 1985 until his elevation to pope in 2005.
As archbishop, Ratzinger approved the transfer of an abusive priest to Munich for therapy, after which the cleric was assigned to pastoral work and molested more boys. And correspondence between the Vatican and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in the late 1990s showed that Ratzinger’s office declined to defrock a priest accused of molesting at least 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf.
In 2001, his office was given primary jurisdiction over sexual abuse cases. Before that, however, some cases crossed his desk if they involved doctrinal issues such as defrocking.
As criticism mounted in Europe about the Vatican’s response to the crisis, Lombardi said Friday that Benedict was willing to meet with more victims of priestly abuse.
Benedict has met with such victims in the past, most notably in the U.S. in 2008, but has yet to do so since the raft of new allegations began emerging in Europe in recent weeks.
But even as Lombardi spoke, new cases of alleged abuse were reported in Norway. The head of the Roman Catholic Church there, Bernd Eidsvig, told reporters that four complaints of molestation had come to light, two of which involved incidents that allegedly occurred about 50 years ago at the hands of people who have since died.
In Benedict’s homeland of Germany, a new hotline set up by the church to receive complaints was jammed with calls., overwhelming the counselors staffing it. Church officials reported more than 13,000 attempted calls to the hotline in just three days, only a fraction of which got through.
Times staff writers Henry Chu in London and Jessica Garrison and Larry Gordon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.