Photo by Brian Giandelone
LOS ANGELES -- The future Pope Benedict XVI resisted pleas to defrock a California priest with a record of sexually molesting children, citing concerns including ''the good of the universal church,'' according to a 1985 letter bearing his signature.
The correspondence, obtained by The Associated Press, is the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican's insistence that Benedict played no role in blocking the removal of pedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog office.
The letter, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was typed in Latin and is part of years of correspondence between the Diocese of Oakland and the Vatican about the proposed defrocking of the Rev. Stephen Kiesle.
The Vatican confirmed Friday that it was 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,'' the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Another spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said the letter showed no attempt at a cover-up. ''The then-Cardinal Ratzinger didn't cover up the case, but as the letter clearly shows, made clear the need to study the case with more attention, taking into account the good of all involved.''
The diocese recommended removing Kiesle from the priesthood in 1981, the year Ratzinger was appointed to head the Vatican office that shared responsibility for disciplining abusive priests.
The case then languished for four years at the Vatican before Ratzinger finally wrote to Oakland Bishop John Cummins. It was two more years before Kiesle was removed; during that time he continued to do volunteer work with children through the church.
In the November 1985 letter, Ratzinger said the arguments for removing Kiesle are of ''grave significance'' but added that such actions required very careful review and more time. He also urged the bishop to provide Kiesle with ''as much paternal care as possible'' while awaiting the decision, according to a translation for AP by Professor Thomas Habinek, chairman of the University of Southern California Classics Department.
But the future pope also noted that 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.'' Kiesle was 38 at the time.
Kiesle had been sentenced in 1978 to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory.