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Pope Benedict balked at defrocking California priest over molestation

By Michelle Boorstein and Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; A03

Newly public documents show that the future Pope Benedict XVI was reluctant in the 1980s to defrock a California priest sentenced to probation for molesting young boys.

Letters over a five-year span between the Diocese of Oakland and the Vatican -- including a 1985 letter signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- have come to light at a time when Benedict's involvement in sex abuse cases in the United States and Europe has been under intense scrutiny. Benedict headed an office charged with defrocking some priests.

In a letter dated four years after the Oakland Diocese proposed defrocking the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, Benedict expressed concern that laicizing Kiesle "could provoke some scandal among the faithful," according to an internal document, which called the Vatican guidance "not too encouraging."

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the Associated Press, which first reported on the case Friday, said Lombardi confirmed that the signature on the letter was Benedict's.

The half-page letter, which is written in Latin, details the pope's thinking when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is charged with monitoring theological issues and overseeing the defrocking of priests.

Letters through the early 1980s between the Oakland Diocese and the Vatican, and internal diocesan memos, describe Kiesle as immature and unspiritual. The memos say that clergy who supervised him before he became a priest were concerned about the "literature" and magazines he was reading, and that he was interested not in the welfare of families and people who were sick; rather, "his main interest was working with young people."

Diocesan officials appealed to the Vatican to remove Kiesle as a priest because he had received three years' probation in 1978 after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct for molesting two boys, according to the memos, copies of which were obtained by The Washington Post.

According to an AP translation, Ratzinger's response said Rome needed more time to review the case before making a decision of such "grave significance."

He urged then-Bishop John Cummins to provide Kiesle with "as much paternal care as possible" while awaiting the decision. However, according to the AP translation, Ratzinger said any decision to defrock 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 remained a priest until 1987, but it is not clear whether he performed any priestly functions. Current diocesan spokesman Mike Brown said records show Kiesle was "relieved of all duties" after the 1978 charge.

Cummins, since retired, said he could not remember if the Vatican understood Kiesle's status. "Thirty years is a long time."

The letters are not explicit. In a June 1981 letter to the Vatican, Cummins says the troubled priest "took an extended leave of absence." In a 1984 letter appealing to the Vatican to proceed with defrocking Kiesle, the bishop wrote that "it would be impossible really to have him back trying to serve in the ministry these days."

A 1988 letter from Oakland's Office of Youth Ministry complained that he was still volunteering with children a year after he was laicized.

"Obviously nothing has been done after EIGHT months of repeated notifications," wrote Maurine Behrend, the Oakland official. "How are we supposed to have confidence in the system when nothing is done? A simple phone call to the pastor from the bishop is all it would take: 'We do not allow convicted child molesters to work with children in this diocese.' "

Some experts on the church said the letters show a dated belief that child predators could be treated, and how extreme the Vatican considers defrocking.

"U.S. bishops were just waking up to the fact that sexual abuse of this kind often signaled a nearly intractable condition," said Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.

But advocates and attorneys for people who were abused by clergy say the letters pose a challenge to the Vatican.

The Vatican has been "blaming different bishops and reporters," said Mike Finnegan, a Minnesota attorney whose firm represented two of Kiesle's victims and won court settlements, but the new documents show the pope's direct involvement as "his signature is on these documents."

Bob Starbody, 52, of Campbell, Calif., who was one of Kiesle's victims in the early 1970s, said the correspondences make it hard to suppress his anger at the church.

"I try not be an angry man today," said Starbody, a printing broker who no longer attends Catholic churches. "I've thought often about going back to the church, but then I hear this kind of crap and I don't want to do it."

Starbody said he had a friendship with Kiesle that began in the 1960s when Starbody was 9, and that it became sexual four years later. He sued the Oakland diocese in 2005 and won $1.6 million. "I felt like I sued God," he said. "I felt like I was betraying the God I was supposed to worship."

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