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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

A 1985 letter has surfaced. It suggests that future Pope Benedict delayed defrocking a priest who had been probation by a court for molesting children. In the letter, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed concern about the good of the universal church in resisting repeated requests to remove the priest.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has seen a copy of the letter and she joins me now.

Barbara, this letter was unearthed in the case of a priest name Stephen Kiesle. Can you give us a little bit more background?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Sure. Stephen Kiesle was ordained in 1972 in Oakland, California. Letters show that people, who oversaw him early in his years as a priest, had a lot of reservations about him. As his own bishop put, quite probably Father Kiesle should never have been ordained.

Then in 1978, when he was a priest at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Kiesle was arrested for tying up six boys, ages 11 to 13, and molesting them in his church. He pleaded no-contest to two of the counts and he was given three years probation, where he was not supposed to have access to children.

Now, according to the letters I've seen, in 1981, Kiesle asked to be laicized. That means he asked to voluntarily leave the priesthood. And the Bishop of Oakland agreed. The Bishop John Cummins sent Kiesle's file to Rome. It went to Cardinal Ratzinger's office, which was in charge of defrocking priests. And the bishop asked Father Kiesle to be removed from the priesthood.

NORRIS: What is the response from Rome now that these letters have surfaced?

HAGERTY: Well, I mean for a few months, Cardinal Ratzinger's office, you know, they wrote a few months later asking for additional material. And then the bishop heard practically nothing. Bishop Cummins wrote three times over the next four years, asking for a decision.

And, you know, Michele, you can almost hear the bishop getting increasingly agitated in these letters. In one letter to Ratzinger, Cummins said, quote, "It is my conviction that there would be no scandal if this petition were granted. And that, as a matter fact, given the nature of the case, there might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to remain in active ministry."

NORRIS: But eventually Cardinal Ratzinger did write something.

HAGERTY: Thats right and I've seen a copy of the letter with the cardinal's signature on it. He wrote that while he considers the case of grave significance, he, quote, "Deems it necessary to consider the good of the universal church." Ratzinger seems particularly concerned about Kiesle's, what he calls, young age - he was 38 at the time. Ratzinger continued that they would basically need more time to consider the case.

Now as far as I know, Michele, this is the first time we've actually seen a letter in which Cardinal Ratzinger was actively delaying the removal of a priest who's accused of abuse, a priest who wanted out of ministry himself, and who everyone around him thought was a danger to kids.

And, you know, diocesan officials appeared really upset about the delay. In one internal memorandum, an official says that he believes, quote, "They are going to sit on it until Steve gets quite a bit older. My own reading," this official says, "is that this is unfortunate."

NORRIS: So you mentioned the delay, eventually he was defrocked.

HAGERTY: He was.

NORRIS: How long did that take?

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