The Kiesle Case


Over at In All Things, Sean Michael Winters makes a valiant effort to defend the Vatican’s handling of the case of Oakland priest Stephen Kiesle but, I’m afraid, comes up short. The media, including present company, have not jumped to unwarranted conclusions about the behavior of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and its leader, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, by failing to read documents from the case carefully and misunderstanding the context. This is not an example of “frustratingly poor coverage.” (Proceed to the jump.)

Take a close look at the 1981 documents. It is evident that what the NYT
posted online represents only part of the case file. For example, an
affidavit from one of Kiesle’s seminary teachers, which Oakland Bishop
John Cummins says he is enclosing in response to the CDF’S request, is
not to be found. More importantly, the initial three documents from the
Oakland diocese requesting that Kiesle be defrocked were part of a more
extensive dossier compiled over several months–based on the numbering
in the upper right hand corner–and forwarded to Rome July 15.

should this matter? As Winters presents the case, the diocese was
notably diffident about how it presented Kiesle’s criminal behavior to
the CDF. This, he says, was merely a request for laicization from Kiesle
himself, not (as the 1983 Code of Canon Law would specify) a referral
of “graviora delicta”–very serious moral violations. But the documents
we have show the diocese making it abundantly clear to the CDF that
Kiesle was an adjudicated child molester whose case had received
widespread attention in the press. (In all likelihood, there is
additional supporting evidence not included in the posted documents–perhaps even mention of “graviora delicta.”)
The point is that the bishop wanted the priest defrocked as a notorious
bad actor, and was making it clear that this was far more than one
cleric’s request to leave the priesthood.

How did the CDF reply?
In November of that year–prior to Ratzinger taking charge–came a Latin
missive (untranslated in the document series) requesting more evidence
and, astonishingly, asking that the bishop promise that he had no fear
of scandal if the laicization took place. Now Winters argues that
Ratzinger, later, could not have been dragging his feet on the case to
avoid scandal because “[t]hat publicity had already occurred.” But in
fact, the CDF had already done exactly that when it asked for Cummins’
promise. And Ratzinger was doing the same when he subsequently wrote
that the CDF was “unable to make light of the detriment that granting
the dispensation can
provoke with the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly regarding
the young age of the petitioner.” As was typical, it was the fear of
causing scandal that was determinative.

Cummins responded to the
CDF’s November 1981 request in a February 1982 letter to Ratzinger that
provided the documentation requested and expressed his conviction that
there might be greater scandal if Kiesle were “allowed to return to
active ministry” than if he were defrocked. And at that point the slow
walk commenced in earnest. Over the next four years, the diocese made
repeated efforts to get the CDF to deal with the case, receiving a
response from Ratzinger only after getting the papal nuncio to the
United States, Pio Laghi, to intervene in September of 1985.

contrast to the CDF’s 1981 response, Ratzinger did not ask for more
documentation. He simply cited fear of harming the community, i.e.
causing scandal, as the reason to take more time considering the case,
particularly in light of Kiesle’s young age (in his 30s). The bishop is
enjoined to provide Kiesle with “as much paternal care as possible,”
bearing in mind that the CDF “is accustomed to proceed keeping the
common good especially before its
The diocesan official in charge himself concluded that this was simply a
delaying tactic on the CDF’s part–and indeed, not until 1987, having
reached the age of 40, was Kiesle defrocked. In the meantime, he had
managed to secure a position as a volunteer youth minister at a church
north of Oakland. (See time line.)

short, on taking charge of the CDF Ratzinger became part of the
cover-up regime. Indeed, there was no sign that the CDF was delaying the
Kiesle case until he took charge. And the delay continued amidst the
huge media commotion over the Gauthe case in Louisiana, the first of the
big priest pedophile scandals, which broke in the Spring of
1985. At that time, meanwhile, Ratzinger was bringing the hammer down
on theologian Charles Curran (for being soft on sexual ethics) and
Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen (in part for his ministry to
homosexuals), and preparing a document condemning tolerance of
homosexuality (“Pastoral Care of Homosexuals”). So in what would become a
familiar two-step, it was the hard line on sexual doctrine, the
tolerant understanding for abusive priests.

None of this is to deny that, in later years, Ratzinger came to
recognize the need for getting tough on abusers. It’s just that he didn’t
start out that way. So good try, Sean Michael, but no cigar.