The Kiesle Case

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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.

  • Joe

    You’ve got the scandal point wrong, and much else besides. The Vatican was indeed concerned about scandal, but not about the abuse getting out – Winters is right about that. The scandal in question was that of having priests released from their putatively permanent vows in short order. The scandal is that of undermining the institution of the priesthood as a permanent commitment. That is why he brought up the age of Kiesle, and that’s what the canon lawyer contacted by the AP points out.
    You haven’t shown at all that Ratzinger became part of a cover-up regime. You don’t address the obvious point that defrocking was neither necessary nor sufficient for removing Kiesle from ministry, esp. ministry with children. In part this is because you just parrot back the timeline without remarking on the fact that Kiesle was already still working as a youth minister a year after he was defrocked. That’s (stupidly or irresponsibly) absent from the AP timeline (though not from the initial story), and it obviously suggests that the urgency of getting this guy out of active ministry and contact with kids does not necessarily translate into the same kind of urgency to get him defrocked and dispensed from his vows.
    Moreover, you also say that Ratzinger was showing “tolerant understanding” for the abusive priest. That makes no sense in this case – Kiesle wanted to be let go, he wanted to be dispensed from his vows. Ratzinger said not yet, and the remark about “paternal care” is obviously a signal to Bishop Cummins that he’ll have to just keep him out of ministry, or at least out of contact with youth. Nothing prevents a bishop’s doing that in the absence of laicization of the priest – another point you don’t mention. So again, the issue of defrocking here, though of course it is related to the fact that he was a heinous child abuser, is not related to it such there had to be urgency in getting him defrocked and dispensed from celibacy. Ratzinger was part of a Vatican bureaucracy that said, in effect, keep this guy out of ministry, but he’s not getting dispensed from his vows right away. (Note that even after this guy was defrocked and got married, he went on to molest a girl. That’s not surprising in light of his past – so it can’t be said that they were fomenting problems by keeping him from marrying, either.)

  • Mark Silk

    So the community was going to be scandalized by the defrocking of a notorious adjudicated child-molester because he happened to be in his 30s? Give me a break.

  • Mark Silk

    Whoops…I accidentally erased a comment by Ben Dunlap: Here it is:
    “the initial three documents from the Oakland diocese requesting that Kiesle be defrocked” — you’re missing the main point that the diocese was not “requesting that Kiesle be defrocked”; Kiesle had petitioned for it and the diocese was supporting his petition. This may seem like hair-splitting but apparently it makes a significant difference in canon law.
    In the one case it’s a disciplinary procedure that’s reserved for the most heinous of situations; in the other case it’s a priest asking to be released from a solemn, public, lifelong promise. Since this was not presented to the Vatican as a disciplinary procedure
    And again and again, with this case and all the others, the main question is, “What difference would it have made if he /had/ been laicized more quickly”? By 1981, when this process began, it had already been years since Kiesle had functioned as a priest.
    The January 1986 letter to Kiesle from the Oakland administrative official is telling, because it’s addressed to “Mr.” Kiesle. In other words, for all practical purposes he had already been laicized, and the process which Cardinal Ratzinger supposedly “obstructed” was the last step in formalizing something that had been in effect, de-facto, since the late 1970s.
    The NYT is very sly to include that last outraged letter from a parish staffer, but that letter appears to have nothing at all to do with the case at hand. Kiesle is not referred to as a priest in that letter, he is clearly not functioning as a priest, and the letter-writer is outraged NOT because the Church has failed to formally laicize Kiesle but because a convicted child molester has been allowed to work with children at her parish.
    This would have been equally outrageous, and equally irrelevant to the case at hand, if the person in question had never been ordained a priest in the first place.

  • Ben Dunlap

    Oops myself, I left a sentence unfinished. I meant to say: Since this was not presented to the Vatican as a disciplinary procedure, it’s hard to read this as a cover-up or obstruction of justice on the part of the Vatican.

  • Ben Dunlap

    double-whoops, that was a diocesan staffer who wrote the last letter, not a parish staffer. At any rate the letter was written in 1988, after Kiesle was laicized, which in a way makes it all the less relevant.
    On the other hand it might be helpful to know the precise details — is it by any chance possible that it was actually /easier/ for Kiesle to volunteer as a lay youth minister after he was laicized, because the diocese would no longer have had the kind of immediate administrative authority over him that it had before he was laicized?
    If so, then the story actually turns on its head.

  • Mark, I live in south Louisiana. The Gauthe case and other revelations of abuse in Louisiana were well covered by the local media outlets, but I don’t recall a huge media commotion outside of Louisiana. It seems to me that coverage by the national media was sparse.

  • Mark Silk

    You’re right that local coverage (by Jason Berry) was extensive. But by May-June of 1985 the story was all over the national press, eliciting (for example) an editorial in the Washington Post. In this the National Catholic Reporter played a key role. (Take a look at Berry’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation.)

  • Michael

    I went looking for the Washington Post editorial about the Gauthe case that you mention. I used Proquest historical newspapers and searched for articles mentioning “Gauthe” or mentioning “priest and abuse” published between 1985 and 1986. I was unable to find the editorial. (I am not sure what search I should have tried…)
    Coincidentally, I did, however, come across an article that gives a window into how these things were thought about at the time. How easily we forget.
    The article is titled “Who Would Sexually Abuse a Child?” by Sally Squires, Washington Post, June 19, 1986, HE7. (I think that is p. 7 of the health section.)
    The article discusses the “largest and most extensive review of child sex abuse cases ever undertaken,” by Gene Abel of Emory University and Judith Becker, director of the sexual behavior clinic at the New York Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. The article states four “myths,” the last of which is…
    “Myth no. 4. No good treatment exists for sex offenders. They must be put in jail.”
    Abel is quoted as saying:
    “The treatments are already available. They’ve been tested. They’re rather inexpensive. We can treat 10 outpatients for every one incarcerated patient.”
    The article goes on to state that “In a companion study, Abel and Becker found that behavior therapy, designed to change how sex offenders think and act, can be successful at treating men with these problems. ‘The success rate is running between 85 and 87%,’ Becker said.”
    It perhaps sheds some light on what happened in the 80s to be reminded that this was the “scientific” view at the time.

  • Michael

    In case anyone goes searching for the article I mentioned, I mistyped the date:
    June 18, 1986.

  • Mark Silk

    I misremembered. It was an NCR editorial that the Washington Post quoted in a June 9, 1985 story on the Gauthe case by Kathy Sawyer: “Priest’s Child-Molestation Case Traumatizes Catholic Community.”

  • Robert Melancon’s trial for child abuse in Houma, LA in 1995, which resulted in a life sentence, did not seem to capture a great deal of the national media’s attention, either, but perhaps I misremember about coverage. Perhaps my mistake is to compare the coverage of the Louisiana scandals by the national media to the intensive coverage of child abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.

  • tom mullen

    Lost pages in Rome file? Didn’t Oakland Diocese make a copy of originals sent to Rome?