A former East Bay priest with a long record of sexually abusing children remained in the clergy for years while then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, bucked pleas from the Oakland diocese to defrock him in the 1980s, according to an Associated Press report citing church documents.
A 1985 letter signed by Ratzinger delayed a decision on the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, citing concerns for "the good of the Universal Church."
The correspondence, obtained by The Associated Press, is the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican's insistence that Pope Benedict played no role in blocking the removal of pedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog office.
In the letter, Ratzinger directed Oakland Bishop John Cummins to provide Kiesle "as much paternal care as possible" while awaiting the Vatican ruling, according to a translation of the letter from Latin. That was a way of saying the bishop was responsible for ensuring Kiesle didn't reoffend, Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena said.
Lena said there were no known cases of abuse by Kiesle between 1981, when the diocese first recommended he be laicized, and 1987, when Kiesle was removed from the priesthood.
The letter came five years after Kiesle himself requested removal from the priesthood, and the diocese recommended it to the Vatican, following Kiesle's no-contest plea in 1978 on a misdemeanor charge for tying up and molesting two preteen boys in the rectory of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Union City.
Kiesle, now 63 and recently released from prison, lives in the Rossmoor senior community in Walnut Creek and wears a Global Positioning System anklet. He is on parole for a different sex crime against a child. A self-described "Pied Piper of the neighborhood," he is perhaps the most notorious among dozens of East Bay clergy accused of sex abuse over decades.
Numerous accusers have claimed he abused them as children at Our Lady of the Rosary, Santa Paula (now Our Lady of Guadalupe) in Fremont and Saint Joseph in Pinole, where he served in the mid-1970s, then returned in 1985 to volunteer as a youth minister.
The Associated Press report adds new fuel to a blaze of criticism from clergy abuse victims and others over Ratzinger's handling of sexual abuse claims while he headed the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog office, before rising to pope five years ago.
The Vatican has insisted Pope Benedict played no direct role in stopping the removal of pedophile priests. But, stained by reports that appear to implicate him, the church on Friday took a conciliatory tack.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, acknowledged that the church had lost public trust and said Pope Benedict was ready to meet with more victims of abuse. The Vatican also urged Catholic dioceses around the world to cooperate with police in clergy sex abuse cases.
But Lombardi declined to address the 1985 letter directly, other than to confirm Ratzinger's signature.
"The press office doesn't believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations," he said. "It is not strange that there are single documents which have Cardinal Ratzinger's signature."
In the letter, Ratzinger says the arguments for removing Kiesle are of "grave significance" but adds that such actions required very careful review and more time. 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 of the petitioner." Kiesle was 38 at the time.
In his earliest letter to Ratzinger, Cummins warned that returning Kiesle to ministry would cause more of a scandal than stripping him of his priestly powers.
"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 the active ministry," Cummins wrote in 1982.
California church officials wrote to Ratzinger at least three times to check on the status of Kiesle's case. At one point, a Vatican official wrote to say the file might have been lost and suggested resubmitting materials. Diocese officials considered writing Ratzinger again after they received his 1985 response to impress upon him that leaving Kiesle in the ministry would harm the church, the Rev. George Mockel wrote in a memo to the Oakland bishop.
"My own reading of this letter is that basically they are going to sit on it until Steve gets quite a bit older," the memo said. "Despite his young age, the particular and unique circumstances of this case would seem to make it a greater scandal if he were not laicized."
Mike Brown, spokesman for the Oakland diocese, said Kiesle was removed from the active ministry in 1978 when the allegations arose from Our Lady of the Rosary. He ultimately was defrocked — laicized, in church parlance — in February 1987, but for more than a year continued working with children at the Pinole church, according to a complaint letter written in May 1988 by Maurine Behrend, who worked in the diocese's Office of Youth Ministry.
Behrend, of San Ramon, said she made three reports before Cummins did anything, including one noting that Kiesle had showed up at a diocese youth event in late 1987. Soon after, Cummins removed Kiesle from his position in Pinole.
"I was just furious," she said Friday. "I wasn't going to stop until somebody paid attention."
A secretary at the Pinole church said she could find no records that would indicate when Kiesle volunteered there. Brown, the diocese spokesman, said Friday he could not offer any other details about the case until next week.
"We're still dusting off the files and trying to understand how we handled things," he said.
In the summer of 2002, police searched outside Kiesle's vacation home in Truckee for clues in the 1988 disappearance of 7-year-old Amber Swartz, who vanished from her Pinole neighborhood. The excavation turned up no evidence, and Kiesle was never named as a suspect.
That same year, Kiesle was arrested and charged with 13 counts of child molestation, 11 of them stemming from his time at Our Lady of the Rosary, and before that at Saint Joseph in Pinole and Santa Paula in Fremont. All but two of the charges were dismissed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a California law extending the statute of limitations in such cases.
The remaining charges were resolved two years later, when Kiesle was sentenced to six years in prison for molesting a young girl at his Truckee vacation home in 1995.
Kiesle was paroled a year ago. In October he violated his parole and returned to prison, then was released last month, said Gordon Hinkle, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Hinkle said he did not know the nature of the parole violation. Kiesle remains on parole and wears a GPS anklet, Hinkle said.
Clergy abuse cases involving Kiesle resulted in multimillion-dollar payouts by the Diocese of Oakland, said Rick Simons, a Hayward attorney who has represented numerous clergy abuse victims, including one he says Kiesle molested while at a seminary in Menlo Park.
Simons said he deposed Kiesle at Mule Creek State Prison.
"Of all the perpetrators I met, which were probably a couple dozen, he was the most evil, remorseless sociopath of them all, just a terrible human being," said Simons. "He was so clearly without any degree of connection or remorse to any of these kids he molested. And there were a lot of them."
No one answered the door at Kiesle's home Friday.
Martinez resident Joey Piscitelli, who heads the Northern California chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he fielded several accusations of abuse by Kiesle from women who claimed he molested them when they were young girls. He placed blame squarely on Benedict.
"Ratzinger knew. It's Ratzinger who dropped the ball," he said.
Simons, the attorney, said the diocese "gets points" for pressing the diocese to laicize Kiesle after the 1985 letter called for more delay.
"Where they get criticized is letting him be a volunteer youth minister," said Simons. "It makes no sense at all."
Cummins, the now-retired bishop, told the AP during an interview at his Oakland home that he "didn't really care for" Kiesle, but he didn't recall writing to Ratzinger concerning the case.
"I wish I did write to Cardinal Ratzinger," said Cummins, now 82. "I don't think I was that smart."
The Associated Press, staff writer Roman Gokhman and Bay Area News Group correspondent Rob Dennis contributed to this story.