The Circle Tightens on Benedict

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The latest revelation of Benedict XVI’s handling of abuse cases prior to becoming pope shows, simply, that he was an integral part of the ecclesiastical regime that served the Church so badly. As archbishop of Munich and Freising he presided over the return of a pedophile priest to pastoral work in 1980. Then, in November of 1981, Pope John Paul II named him prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), in which capacity he became responsible for the case of a notorious pedophile priest from diocese of Oakland, California named Stephen Kiesle.

In 1978, Kiesle had, with no shortage of media coverage, been pleaded guilty to tying up and molesting two young boys, for which he was given three years’ probation and suspended from priestly duties. The diocese was now seeking to get the CDF to laicize him. Why the CDF had charge of the case rather than the Congregation for the Clergy is not clear, but it’s evident that the CDF was slow-walking the case. Despite the fact that Kiesle had been convicted, on November 17, 1981, it asked the Diocese for more information, and–in an edgy Latin sentence–toldthe Bishop of Oakland that he should “not disdain” to transmit his promise that laicizing Kiesle could be accomplished “without fear of scandal.” On February 1, 1982, Bishop John Cummins wrote to the prefect and future pope, Joseph Ratzinger, saying that scandal was more likely if Kiesle were not removed from the priesthood than if he was. One can only imagine Cummins’ annoyance. (See documents here.)

Despite this, the CDF took its own sweet time. Finally in September of 1985, Bishop Cummins, having received no answer to repeated inquiries, got papal nuncio Pio Laghi into the act, asking him to forward an inquiry about the case to Ratzinger. And lo and behold, on November 6, the cardinal wrote to the bishop saying that more time was needed (text after jump). It’s a very bad letter–one that offers all kinds of reasons for not doing the thing that needed to be done. It took two more years for Kiesle to be defrocked. That he was a really bad actor was known, and is demonstrated by his subsequent criminal behavior.

No doubt, Benedict’s defenders will insist that that was then, this is now. They will point out that Benedict came to see the light–understanding that the Vatican could no longer treat these cases the way it had been treating them, and taking steps to establish a new regime. And that, moreover, even as we speak, the Vatican is about to promulgate and make incumbent on bishops conferences throughout the world a set of “zero tolerance” norms ensuring that cases of abuse are handled openly and efficiently, and referred to the secular authorities. And all that seems to be pretty much on point.

But there’s no getting around the fact that before he was part of the solution, Pope Benedict was part of the problem. At this point, it is bootless for the Vatican and its apologists to pretend otherwise.

Text of 1985 Letter From Future Pope Benedict
Following is the text of a November 1985 letter in Latin signed by
then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to Oakland Bishop John S. Cummins. It was
translated for The Associated Press by Thomas Habinek, chairman of the
University of Southern California Classics Department.

Most Excellent Bishop

Having received your letter of September 13 of this year, regarding the
matter of the removal from all priestly burdens pertaining to Rev.
Stephen Miller Kiesle in your diocese, it is my duty to share with you
the following:

This court, although it regards the arguments presented in favor of
removal in this case to be of grave significance, nevertheless deems it
necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church together with
that of the petitioner, and it is also 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

It is necessary for this Congregation to submit incidents of this sort
to very careful consideration, which necessitates a longer period of

In the meantime your Excellency must not fail to provide the petitioner
with as much paternal care as possible and in addition to explain to
same the rationale of this court, which is accustomed to proceed keeping
the common good especially before its eyes.

Let me take this occasion to convey sentiments of the highest regard
always to you.

Your most Reverend Excellency

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger