Future pope resisted efforts to remove priest
Letter cites man’s youth, need for review
LOS ANGELES — The future Pope Benedict XVI resisted pleas to remove a California priest with a record of sexually molesting children, citing concerns including “the good of the universal church,’’ according to a 1985 letter bearing his signature.
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The correspondence, obtained by the Associated Press, is the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican’s insistence that Benedict played no role in blocking the removal of pedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal watchdog office.
The letter, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was typed in Latin and is part of years of correspondence between the Diocese of Oakland and the Vatican about the proposed dismissal of the Rev. Stephen Kiesle.
The Vatican confirmed yesterday that it was Ratzinger’s signature. “The press office doesn’t believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations,’’ the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
But later, the Vatican’s lawyer said that Ratzinger told the California bishop to make sure that Kiesle didn’t abuse while the church worked to dismiss him.
Attorney Jeffrey Lena said Ratzinger urged the bishop to give Kiesle “as much paternal care as possible.’’ Lena said that was a way of saying the bishop was responsible for ensuring that Kiesle didn’t reoffend.
Lena said there were no known cases of abuse by Kiesle between 1981, when his diocese first recommended that he be laicized, and 1987 when he was removed from the priesthood.
Another spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said the letter showed no attempt at a coverup. “The then-Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t cover up the case, but as the letter clearly shows, made clear the need to study the case with more attention, taking into account the good of all involved.’’
The diocese recommended removing Kiesle from the priesthood in 1981, the year Ratzinger was appointed to head the Vatican office that shared responsibility for disciplining abusive priests.
The case then languished for four years at the Vatican before Ratzinger wrote to Oakland Bishop John Cummins. It was two more years before Kiesle was removed; during that time he continued to do volunteer work with children through the church.
In the November 1985 letter, Ratzinger says the arguments for removing Kiesle are of “grave significance’’ but added that such actions required very careful review. He also urged the bishop to provide Kiesle with “as much paternal care as possible’’ while awaiting the decision, according to a translation by professor Thomas Habinek, chairman of the University of Southern California Classics Department.
But the future pope also noted that any decision to remove Kiesle must take into account the “good of the universal church’’ and the “detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly considering the young age.’’ Kiesle was 38 at the time.
Kiesle had been sentenced in 1978 to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory.
As his probation ended in 1981, Kiesle asked to leave the priesthood and the diocese submitted papers to Rome to dismiss him.
In his earliest letter to Ratzinger, Cummins warned that returning Kiesle to ministry would cause more of a scandal than stripping him of his priestly powers.
“It is my conviction that there would be no scandal if this petition were granted and that as a matter of fact, given the nature of the case, there might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry,’’ Cummins wrote in 1982.
California church officials wrote to Ratzinger at least three times to check on the status of Kiesle’s case and Cummins discussed the case with officials during a Vatican visit, according to correspondence. At one point, a Vatican official wrote to say the file may have been lost and suggested resubmitting materials.
Diocese officials considered writing Ratzinger again after they received his 1985 response to impress upon him that leaving Kiesle in the ministry would harm the church, the Rev. George Mockel wrote in a memo to the Oakland bishop.
“My own reading of this letter is that basically they are going to sit on it until Steve gets quite a bit older,’’ the memo said. “Despite his young age, the particular and unique circumstances of this case would seem to make it a greater scandal if he were not laicized.’’