As a senior Vatican official in the 1980s, the future Pope Benedict XVI was reluctant to defrock a California priest accused of sexually abusing children, correspondence released by lawyers for the victims appeared to show on Friday.
A series of letters released by attorney Jeff Anderson showed repeated misgivings concerning the conduct of priest Stephen Kiesle raised by senior officials from the Oakland diocese during the early 1980s.
In a letter sent by Oakland Bishop John Cummins to the Vatican in June 1981, he petitioned authorities to defrock Kiesle, citing a 1978 court case where he had pleaded no contest to abusing six children aged from 11 to 13.
A further letter sent by Cummins in February 1982 to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who at the time was responsible for enforcing Roman Catholic doctrine and went on to become Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 — again urged Kiesle to be defrocked.
“It is my conviction that there would be no scandal if this petition were granted,” Cummins wrote, warning there “might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry.”
An additional request for action against Kiesle was sent in September 1982, only to receive a “rather curt” reply that the matter “would be examined at an opportune time” according to internal correspondence in the Oakland diocese.
By 1985 — four years after the initial letter — Oakland diocese officials were still awaiting word from the Vatican over the status of the petition requesting Kiesle’s defrocking.
Eventually, Ratzinger replies to Cummins in a letter written in Latin dated Nov. 15, 1985.
While Ratzinger admits the “gravity” of Kiesle’s case, he states he is reluctant to take action immediately because he needs to consider the effect it will have on the “good of the Universal Church.”
Ratzinger informs Cummins that Kiesle’s case must be submitted to “careful consideration, which will take a longer period than usual.”
In response, Oakland Diocese Reverend George Mockel tells Cummins he believes the Vatican officials “are going to sit on” the case “until [Kiesle] gets quite a bit older.”
“My own feeling is that this is unfortunate,” Mockel writes.
Kiesle was eventually defrocked in 1987. He later worked as a youth coordinator at a parish in Pinole, northern California for eight months, said Anderson, who represented two of Kiesle’s victims in a civil action against the Oakland Diocese.
Anderson said the correspondence was evidence of a cover-up involving Ratzinger.
“It definitively puts Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican in the middle of a cover-up and the continued denial of it,” Anderson said.
Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini defended Ratzinger’s handling of the case in a statement to the Italian news agency Ansa on Friday.
“It is clearly understandable from the letter that cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did not cover-up the case but rather stated it was necessary to study it very carefully with consideration for all parties implicated,” Benedettini said.
Kiesle received only three years probation in his 1978 case before his record was later expunged. In 2004 he was sentenced to six years in prison for molesting a young girl nine years earlier.
Anderson said Kiesle had escaped a prison term in the earlier abuse case because of the influence of the Church.
“It’s very rare for a priest to even be prosecuted because of the influence the Church has,” he said. “So when Kiesle was prosecuted it was handled very quietly and under the radar.”
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