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Now This: AP Exclusive Shows Future Pope Benedict Delayed Action on Abusive Priest in 1985

And now this: in an AP exclusive, reporter Gillian Flaccus writes that Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) stalled the investigation of a priest known to be abusing minors in the Oakland, California, diocese in 1985.

The diocese recommended that the Vatican remove Rev. Stephen Kiesle from ministry in 1981.  “The case then languished for four years at the Vatican before Ratzinger finally wrote to Bishop John Cummins,” according to Flaccus.  Kiesle continued in ministry another two years, continuing to have access to children.

Ratzinger’s November 1985 letter responding to Bishop Cummins, of which AP has a copy, says that the arguments for removing Kiesle from ministry were “of grave significance,” but the matter demanded further review, during which Cummins was to treat Kiesle with “as much paternal care as possible.”

Ratzinger’s letter advises careful consideration before Kiesle was defrocked, basing his argument for the continuation of Kiesle’s ministry as the case was reviewed on “the good of the universal church.”

While the matter continued under review, Rev. Kiesle volunteered for (and was permitted to engage in) youth ministry.  An attorney for six of Kiesle’s victims, Lewis VanBlois, says, “He admitted molesting many children and bragged that he was the Pied Piper and said he tried to molest every child that sat on his lap.  When asked how many children he had molested over the years, he said ‘tons.’”

Kiesle married after leaving the priesthood and in 2002 was arrested and charged with 13 counts of child molestation from the 1970s.  But all except two counts were thrown out after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law extending the statute of limitations in such cases.   In 2004, Kiesle pled no contest to a felony charge for molesting a young girl in his house in 1995 (i.e., after he was defrocked), and was sentenced to six years in state prison.

The Vatican confirmed today that the letter obtained by AP has Ratzinger’s signature, but states that the letter is being taken out of context and that the future pope’s concern was for “the good of all involved.”

Joelle Casteix of SNAP responds that the hearts of other survivors of abuse ache for the girls and boys Kiesle molested after Vatican officials had a chance to approve his defrocking, but chose not to act immediately.

“For the good of the universal church . . . .”  Treat him—a priest known to be molesting children, kept in ministry with children, and permitted to do youth ministry—treat him with “as much paternal care as possible.”

Not the children.  Him.  The priest.  Who was raping them.

I know full well that many apologists will now do the old song and dance of saying that this was the culture of the church at the time, and church officials didn’t know better, and we ought not to judge their behavior now by criteria that postdate what they knew then.

But why was it so difficult for church officials to see in 1985 that raping children was wrong?  While protecting the priests who shattered children’s lives?

What is so morally repugnant—in the extreme—about these attitudes is how they consistently treat abused children as if they are not there.  As if they do not count.  As if what was happening to them was inconsequential.

And this was “for the good of the universal church”?  What moral universe does someone who thinks this way inhabit?

In reading this story, I am reminded of something Bishop Victor Balke of Crookston wrote to Cardinal Levada, Ratzinger’s successor in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in December 2006, in the case of Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul.  Balke wrote,

It is difficult for me to quantify the harm that this man has done to the dignity of the priesthood.

When I first read that sentence in the documents that Laurie Goodstein appended to her discussion of the Jeyapaul story, I’ll admit I was foolish enough to think that Bishop Balke’s declaration, “It is difficult for me to quantify the harm that this man has done,” would conclude by talking about the girls Jeyapaul harmed.

I was sickened, but not surprised, to read that the sentence concluded by talking about the harm he has done to the dignity of the priesthood.

And there, in a single sentence, is the dark heart of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, exposed in all its profound ugliness: the harm to the priesthood.

Not the children.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 9 April 2010.


17 Responses

  1. To think that Benedict’s concern for the church in 1985 set the scene for the abuse of a child just 10 years later. Does anyone doubt there were other little girls who perhaps never came forward?

    And Benedict’s concern for the church in 1985 has come home to roost – like a chicken that knows its barnyard. And now Benedict is trying to pretend the barnyard filth was caused by the press or society itself. Meanwhile those chickens are laying eggs faster than the rest of us can keep up!

    Keep it up, Bill!

    • Just responded at my Bilgrimage blog, TheraP, where you left the same posting–and I very much appreciate the encouragement.

      I feel very sad and down, I have to admit, with this latest revelation. Sill trying to figure out why it is the one that has evoked the deepest emotion. It’s not as if I haven’t known all along what’s being covered up and why.

      It’s just the accumulated weight of it all–and the point that SNAP wants us never to forget. Human beings, innocent, still-taking-shape human beings, were sacrificed for this grotesque notion of the church’s immaculate image.

  2. hmmm…I gave this five stars but it only has a rating of three after two votes – meaning another reader took offense and ‘down-voted’ it. Another shocking revelation that seems to be part of an avalanche that is unstoppable. One’s heart bleeds for the victims and for the Catholic community, but justice is having it’s day and a false idol is rapidly crumbling.

    • Thanks, Jayden. With the vote: ah, well, the messenger often gets shot.

      But the shooting won’t stop me and many others from continuing to tell this story, as long as we’re capable of doing so.

      There will be those who remain in denial to the bitter end, and I have to remind myself that the human tendency is to keep defending authority figures and institutions in the face of tremendous evidence that those figures and institutions have become empty and amoral. I’ve seen that dynamic at work many times in my life, and have seen empty authority figures hang on and on long after I had hoped they’d be deposed.

      But eventually the walls of conceit, injustice, and cruelty do tumble down . . . .

  3. We all have to agree that there is a perverted sub culture within the catholic church. All newly minted priests learn to LIE, COVERUP and DENY sexual alegations against the church and its clergy. These cowardly holy men have never come forward to turn in criminals from within their ranks. Shame on all of them.

    Catholics, for 2000 years you have been fooled. UNBELIEVABLE!

  4. As yet another revelation–each one more heinous than the last it seems–comes forward I become ever more deeply discouraged at the Church’s current situation and it’s leadership.

    I do not want to come of as one trying to defend or make excuses for Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI but I do feel that objectivity is necessary in these cases. Also, it is necessary to understand the ecclesial culture and climate in which Joseph Ratzinger was reared.

    In the pre-Conciliar Church, human sexuality–and the implications which went along with it–was a subject that was seldomly discussed, and as such, was looked upon with shrouded mystery and incomprehension, particularly by those in positions of leadership within the Church.

    Thus, when Cardinal Ratzinger was confronted with these allegations for the first time in the 1980’s–having never dealed with such a phenomenon before and not having any other examples from similar cases throughout the Catholic world–he did what he thought was best.

    Unfortunately, he didn’t comprehend that in the process of trying to protect the image of the Church he was also ruining and preventing justice from being sought by the very innocent victims of these heinous crimes. Living in the upper levels of ecclesial prestige for most of his life, Joseph Ratzinger never really had to confront such raw cases of humanity at its very worst. Failing to recognize that this was the real crisis–and not the secret protection of the Church’s preceived integrity–is where he went wrong.

    I think the Holy Father has realized this and has tried–as best and concretely as he can–to atone for these failures by setting in place stringent and definitive measures that prevent clerics who have even been rumored of abuse from being allowed to maintain their current positions. However, the fact that he did this sooner rather than later leaves many to question his credibility and sincere dedication to the issue.

    I hope and pray that His Holiness does not continue to simply view this matters as simply “petty gossip” concocted by a liberal, secular media contingent. I think part of showing how genuinely concerned he is on the matter is actually speaking personally from his perspective and indeed acknowledging his failures. Instead of demeaning his stature among the general public it would in fact increase it, and make him seem like a credible, and sincerely concerned pastor devoted to ensuring that these perpetrations are never committed again. Yet, with the aura of infalliblity that surrounds the Roman Pontiff, admitting any sort of failure is–unfortunately–seen as a point of weakness by his advisors in the Vatican.

    It would do the Pope good to see that admitting failure does not necessarily denote weakness–but instead–confirms a common frail humanity in which we all share, in which we all hope to be strengthened, perfected, and renewed by God our Hope, upon Who we depend for all things and deliverance from all woes.

    • Phillip, thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      I think we come at this story from very different angles. Though church officials may have been viewing these cases through the optic of sexual ethics in the past, to me, the salient moral feature is simply this: children are being abused. Children ought not to be abused. We have an overwhelming moral obligation to prevent the abuse of children whenever and wherever it happens.

      So what makes stories like this unthinkable for me is that we’re talking about a pastor with the power to stop children from being abused immediately (in this one case–and how many others?). And who does not do that. In fact, who continues to put children in harm’s way by permitting the abuser to remain in contact with them.

      There is something in these stories that goes far beyond the failure to understand sexual ethics. There’s the ability of many Catholic leaders–and many layfolks who support them–even to “see” these children.

      That’s astonishing to me, especially when those same leaders want us to invest everything in an emotional narrative about an ovum that has just been fertilized. They want us to imagine that conceptus as a person and to experience deep revulsion at its abortion.

      How do church leaders think they can sustain such a narrative about a just-fertilized ovum, when the child who is raped due to their putting the image of the church first is standing in front of us, demanding attention, too? Something is very awry with this picture, morally speaking.

      And I personally do not think that either Benedict or the folks in the Vatican have tried to atone for these failures, as you say. They have spent crucial time in the last weeks playing the same old games: pity me, I’m the real victim; bash the (fill in the blank), who are out to get the church.

      These responses are dismaying enough in any leader. But in Christian leaders?

  5. May we hear your voice loud and clear for many, many years!

    • Thank you, Steve. I’ll keep trying to plug along.

  6. William, I would have given your article 10 stars if I could! And each of your comments. Thank you for all that you do!!

    • Erin, thank you. I’m glad you found the post helpful. I appreciate the encouragement, too.

  7. It’s hard to know where to start to get some objectivity to this Associated Press story. It is a glaring example of bashing the Church for the sake of bashing the Church (or to further agendas on other issues). I know nothing of the actual events, as I suppose no one else here does either. However, the story itself reveals these defenses for the Vatican:

    First, the request for defrocking came from the priest, not the bishop. The priest pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lewd conduct in 1978. He was put on probation. Near the end of the probation, he asked to be defrocked; the bishop submitted his request.

    Second, civil authorities did not hold him or deem him to be dangerous. Even if he had been defrocked immediately, he would still have been in society at large. In fact, that is what happened after he was defrocked. He returned to his lay position. At that point, he had no one to watch over him, and he abused again.

    Third, there is no evidence that he sexually abused anyone during the time that the defrocking decision was pending.

    Fourth, the decision to defrock is unrelated to the decision about whether he should be in contact with children. His bishop had the authority to remove him from contact with children.

    Fifth, those were different times for civil AND Church authorities. This decision didn’t have anything to do with stunted sexual understandings. It had more to do with what was considered proper punishment and rehabilitative measures to deal with these kind of offenses.

    Sixth, the Vatican was only in charge of the defrocking decision, not the punishment decision. The punishment decision was primarily the civil authorities. Apparently, the AP (and others) believe that Ratzinger was supposed to second-guess the civil authorities, who apparently issued no restrictions on the man’s conduct.

    Seventh, forgiveness of sins is an important element of Catholic teaching. It is easy to now suggest that the civil response should have been to lock him up and throw away the key. But, even today, the Church cannot take such a position with sexual abusers. It must have a policy that permits for redemption of the soul of even the most gravely disturbed.

    Lastly, this charge is 25 years old. It says NOTHING about the thinking of the Church today. That it is brought up today, and in this manner says the world about those after the Church and the Pope’s hide. There is a statute of limitations against prosecution for offenses; there is apparently no statute of limitations for the media.

    • David, I appreciate the reply. And if I don’t respond quickly these days to your comments about my postings here, I apologize.

      I do have to tell you honestly, though, that I simply don’t have time to respond to the disinformation that some Catholic groups are intent on disseminating right now, re: the church’s present crisis.

      Too much new information is coming out daily which demands valuable time and energy, for me to be expending the time and energy I have dealing with disinformation.

      I do invite you, though, to log onto my Bilgrimage blog (a link to it is at this Open Tabernacle site) and–if you wish–follow my postings there, which are combating the disinformation on a daily basis and seeking to provide accurate information. To anyone who chooses to listen . . . .

      • I’m sorry that Mr. Ludescher took the trouble to line out the facts that have come out on these now-apparently groundless accusations, and your only response was to say you are too busy repeating more accusations to deal with his “disinformation.”

        There is a nice summary of this whole sorry episode in the Guardian, of all places:


        It is this eagerness to repeat accusations, coupled with a lack of any interest in following up to see whether they are true, which suggests to me that none of this is about the protection of children.

        • How nice to hear from you again, Mr. Allen. I think the last time you addressed me here, your comment was to the effect of, “What’s the point?”

          I invite you, too, to visit my Bilgrimage blog these days if you want to read some alternative viewpoints that come to quite different conclusions about the facts than you are reaching.

          Those alternative (and simultaneously mainstream) viewpoints are definitely out there, for anyone who cares to find them. And who cares about the facts.

          And the truth.

      • Bill,

        It would appear that most of the information coming out now is accurate. It just doesn’t seem particularly relevant. “Pope failed to stop earthquake in Chili.” is an accurate statement. It also happens to be totally meaningless.

        • “It would appear that most of the information coming out now is accurate.”

          You’re referring, I take it then, David, to Hans Küng’s open letter last week to all the bishops of the church? In which he states, “There is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (1981-2005).”

          I agree with you. Since Küng knows the current pope better than almost anyone else in the world–as his letter notes, they collaborated at Vatican II as the two youngest periti at the Council–I would see his assessement as accurate, indeed. And extremely compelling, given his first-hand and longstanding knowledge of the current pope. And his demonstrable concern for the good of the church, which has been apparent throughout his theological career. And his passionate commitment to seeing that we find the truth as we engage in theological reflection.

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