Letter Shows Future Pope Delayed Removing Priest

Pope Benedict XVI i i

hide captionPope Benedict XVI greets a crowd in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP
Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI greets a crowd in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP

A letter from 1985 shows Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — actively delayed defrocking a priest who had been charged with molesting several young boys. One reason, according to the letter, which is signed by Ratzinger, is that the Vatican needed to "consider the good of the Universal Church."

The case involved Father Stephen Kiesle, who was ordained in Oakland, Calif., in 1972. From the start, people overseeing the young priest wondered whether he was fit for the priesthood. According to church documents, he seemed immature, and one senior pastor worried about Kiesle's "questionable relationships with young children."

"Father Kiesle was not only a troubled priest, but he was a serial offender," says Jeff Anderson, an attorney who handled a civil case against the priest and provided documents to NPR.

According to church documents, in 1978, Kiesle was arrested for molesting six boys at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Union City, Calif. He later pleaded no contest to two of the counts. He was given three years' probation, and told he would not have access to children. By 1981, the bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, persuaded Kiesle to ask to be laicized, or voluntarily removed from the priesthood. Cummins wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, who headed the Vatican department that disciplined priests and urged the Vatican to defrock Kiesle.

"Kiesle himself asked for removal from the clerical state," Anderson says. "Kiesle himself knew that he was unfit and asked for it. The sad and alarming thing was that there was no response from then-Cardinal Ratzinger."

Over the next four years, Cummins wrote Cardinal Ratzinger three times, asking for a decision. In one letter he wrote: "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 active ministry."

A letter from Cardinal Ratzinger finally arrived in November 1985. The cardinal said that he considered the allegations to be of "grave significance." But his office "deems it necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church together with that of the petitioner," adding that he needed more time to consider the case.

Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer who works with plaintiffs, says this is a stunning response.

"It was a confirmed case of a young priest, who if he had continued in the priesthood, he would have molested a lot more and yet they delayed," Doyle says. "I have two questions: Don't you read the stuff that you're sent? Or if you do read it, don't you understand what it means?"

Still, Doyle says you have to consider the context. Under Pope Paul VI, who preceded John Paul II, when a priest wanted to leave the priesthood, he was allowed to do so very quickly.

"When John Paul II became pope, he did not agree with this policy and he felt if he shut it down and made it extremely difficult, that priests simply wouldn't think about leaving the priesthood," Doyle says. "So it could well be that Cardinal Ratzinger was reflecting the mind of the pope."

When officials in the Oakland Diocese received Ratzinger's letter, they appeared upset. In one internal memorandum, an official says that he believes "they are going to sit on it until Steve gets quite a bit older," which he called "unfortunate."

The Vatican did not defrock Kiesle until 1987. Even then, Kiesle was allowed to volunteer as a youth minister in another church. The church staff complained bitterly, and he was finally removed altogether. After pleading no contest to abusing a girl, he was sentenced to six years in prison in 2004.

Doyle says this document will not bring the pope down, though it adds to worldwide skepticism.

"I think it's unfair to single him out," he says. "It was an issue with the entire Vatican bureaucracy. It's the whole system."

A Vatican spokesman said Friday that the letter showed no attempt at a cover up, and insisted that the letter made clear the need to study the case "taking into account the good of all involved."

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