The abuser who wanted to be defrocked

In the early summer of 1978, police arrived at a Union City church looking for the younger of its two pastors, Stephen Kiesle.

He was away, so officers informed the senior pastor, Father George Crespin, that Kiesle was wanted for molesting six children at the church and that there was a warrant for his arrest.

When Kiesle returned to the city south of Oakland, Crespin confronted him with the allegations.

Kiesle sighed. He seemed relieved, as if he had been waiting for this day to come, Crespin recalled. Kiesle surrendered to authorities and eventually pleaded no contest to criminal charges of molesting children. A few years later, in 1981, he asked to be defrocked, something that would require Vatican approval.


Crespin thought Kiesle’s request, which was supported by the Diocese of Oakland, would be quickly granted.

But in a 1985 letter made public last week, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Vatican’s chief enforcer of doctrine and now Pope Benedict XVI, declined to immediately defrock Kiesle, citing the priest’s young age and the “good of the Universal Church.” It would be two more years before the Vatican finally granted the request.

Crespin was shocked by Rome’s reluctance.

“We didn’t anticipate the obstacles that we were going to have to face in Rome,” Crespin recalled in an interview with The Times at his current church in Berkeley. “It was like a friendly divorce. . . . We thought, as they say in the sports world, that it was going to be a slam dunk. . . . It was so clear that this is what should be done, and to have [the Vatican] not see it that way was frustrating.”


The letter has become a flash point in the current debate over the pope’s handling of priestly abuse cases. But it was only one element of the response by the church hierarchy -- stretching from the East Bay to the Vatican -- to years of abuse at the hands of Kiesle. There remain questions today about how the case was handled.

While the diocese was trying to have the priest defrocked, a pastor in the town of Pinole, north of Oakland, allowed Kiesle to volunteer at his church for seven years in various youth programs. He continued to serve at the church even after the Vatican finally removed him as a priest in 1987.

The diocese insisted this week that it had no idea Kiesle was volunteering there until the matter was brought to Bishop John Cummins’ attention in 1988. Cummins then sent the church pastor a letter demanding that Kiesle immediately be removed. The pastor, who is now deceased, defended his decision at the time, telling the diocese there was no evidence Kiesle abused anyone while volunteering.

Kiesle was eventually removed as a church volunteer that year. Seven years later, authorities said he was again abusing.


Kiesle grew up in San Jose, and acquaintances said he was drawn to the priesthood in part by his mother, a devout Catholic.

When he was a young priest in the early 1970s, people said he resembled a 6-foot-tall teddy bear. He quickly became known for his empathy with children, playing guitar, telling engaging yarns and seeming to connect with young people in a way not many priests did.

‘Kids followed him’

Across the Oakland Diocese, pastors called on him to help set up programs for children in their congregations.


“Kids followed him,” recalled Msgr. Antonio Valdivia, who worked with Kiesle briefly in Union City. “He was known for his work with the youth . . . energizing the kids, speaking their language, relating and connecting with them.”

At age 25, Kiesle landed at St. Joseph’s Church in Pinole. Children flocked around him, earning him the nickname of the Pied Piper. He always seemed to have a camera, constantly snapping photos of the children.

In 1975, he arrived with high recommendations at a blue-collar neighborhood in Union City, where he became Crespin’s associate pastor.

At first, things went well. But three years into his term at Our Lady of the Rosary, the church was rocked by allegations of abuse.


Six boys came forward, saying they had been molested by Kiesle while Crespin was away on sabbatical. A parent of one of the boys worked for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and went to the authorities with the children’s statements.

Prosecutors charged Kiesle with multiple counts of lewd conduct. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded no contest to molesting two boys and received three years’ probation.

Bishop Cummins removed Kiesle from ministry and offered to send him to an administrative assignment or to a residential therapy facility in Massachusetts, according to a diocesan spokesman who reviewed church records from the time.

But Kiesle refused those offers and got a job at a local wholesale plant business, said the spokesman, Mike Brown.


Kiesle then petitioned the Vatican to be defrocked, saying he had a “potential wife.”

In the six years that would elapse before the Vatican defrocked him, the diocese and Kiesle had a “mutual agreement” that he would stay away from the church, Crespin said.

Because of the publicity surrounding his arrest, church officials weren’t concerned about Kiesle abusing other children and thought that any other victims would have already come forward, Crespin recalled.

But as the diocese moved to have Kiesle defrocked, a pastor at the church in Pinole quietly allowed him to return as a volunteer working with children.


“Steve’s life revolved around kids,” Crespin recalled. “I’m sure not having the interaction with kids probably left his life very empty.”

In 1985, the diocese received a letter from the Vatican bearing the signature of then-Cardinal Ratzinger in response to the petition to have Kiesle defrocked.

But it wasn’t what they had expected.

The future pope, while acknowledging that the case for defrocking was of “grave significance,” wrote of the “detriment that [defrocking] can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful” and said the Vatican’s review of Kiesle’s request would take more time and consideration.


Two years later, the Vatican agreed to the defrocking.

But Kiesle continued to work with children at the Pinole church.

In 1988, he showed up at a youth day event put on by the diocese as a volunteer for St. Joseph’s, recalled Maurine Behrend, who worked for the diocese’s youth ministry office at the time. People from the Union City church were furious and demanded to know why the man was there. Behrend complained to Bishop Cummins, who sent a letter to the pastor in Pinole ordering Kiesle removed.

That pastor, Patrick Bishop, objected, saying “there had never been a hint of any improper conduct” in the seven years Kiesle was allowed to volunteer, according to the diocese.


Nevertheless, the pastor removed Kiesle.

More allegations

But authorities said the abuse didn’t stop. In 1995, Kiesle molested a young girl at his mountain cabin in the Truckee, Calif., area. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

The full extent of Kiesle’s abuses would not be revealed until the early 2000s, when more victims came forward saying he had molested them during his years in the priesthood.


The allegations mainly covered Kiesle’s first years as a priest in the 1970s and as a seminary student in the late 1960s.

Many of those victims said they were abused at the Pinole church during those years, among them a woman who later became Kiesle’s stepdaughter.

In 2002, authorities once again arrested Kiesle and charged him with at least nine additional counts of molestation. But those cases were thrown out when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law extending the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases.

Civil lawsuits filed on behalf of at least eight victims were settled by the diocese.


Kiesle, now 63, was released from prison last year and is living in a quiet retirement community nestled among rolling hills in Walnut Creek. At his home, a woman answered the door by cracking it open about an inch, saying “No,” then abruptly closing it.

Bob Starbody still sees resemblances to Kiesle’s bulky frame in crowds of people and breaks into a sweat. Starbody, now 52, was a 9-year-old boy with blue eyes and sandy hair when he met Kiesle at a Catholic summer camp in the late 1960s.

Kiesle, then a seminary student, took him on camping trips as far away as Canada and had him sleep over at his room in the seminary, Starbody said. Starbody received a settlement from the diocese in 2005.

“I remember vividly him lifting up the covers and saying, ‘Come here,’ ” he said, his eyes scanning the air as if to outline the image of Kiesle’s room seared into his memory.


His deepest anger, however, lies not with Kiesle but with the Catholic Church. His lawsuit against the church drove a wedge between him and his mother, who washed the linens on her church’s altar every day until she died.

“Steve I pray for today because he’s a sick man,” he said. “But the church, the church needs to change.”