Once More Unto the Breach

Once more unto the breach – because the AP and the New York Times have once more demonstrated their lack of understanding of the Church and their outright malice in the latest attempt to smear Pope Benedict by selective documentation and misinterpretation of his role as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in regard to cases involving sexual abuse of minors.

I learned about this newest case from Yahoo News yesterday afternoon (April 9) while working at the library. I could hardly bear to read it; it was a tangle of insinuations, botched chronology, missing dates, lack of context and sheer ignorance. Around 6:30, as I was about to leave for home, I got an e-mail from a reader of my blog, who pointed out to me that the Italian papers had a facsimile of a Latin letter by Ratzinger, the only document by him in the case. I printed out copies of this and the Italian articles and read them at dinner.

The AP story had translated parts of Ratzinger’s Latin letter, which was to the bishop of Oakland, Ca, about the laicization of a priest who had abused minors, and it made him look heartless and uncaring about the gravity of the issue, citing as reason for the delay the youth of the petitioner, and the need to consider “the common good” and “the good of the Universal Church.”

I thought this letter was not exactly what it seemed; at home I began to translate it; only later did I find the New York Times article which had a translation. Nevertheless, the NYT neglected to translate another letter with important facts in it. Here are the facts in order (which is more than you will get from the MSM).

Fr. Steven Kiesle, a young priest in the diocese of Oakland, had molested at least six young boys between the ages of eleven and thirteen. He was arrested in 1978, pleaded no contest and received a three-year suspended sentence. He requested laicization voluntarily in 1981.

Fr. Kiesle’s request for dispensation from priestly obligations and celibacy was one of many that would be pouring into the Holy See that year – a mass exodus from the priesthood had begun in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The petitioners ranged from those who wanted to leave the ministry to marry to those who wanted to join Marxist revolutionaries, become Buddhists or otherwise “find themselves.” (I have corrected this somewhat: see the update below). A priest who asked to be voluntarily released who was also a pedophile would be unusual. It’s not clear if that was the exact reason that Kiesle requested the dispensation. But the pastor and the bishop both agreed that he was an immature individual who had little taste for the ministry and never should have become a priest.

The request on Kiesle’s behalf went to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which at that time handled these dispensations. It should be noted that it did not go there because Fr. Kiesle had committed sexual abuse of minors. The CDF did not gain control of such cases until 2001. It would have been treated simply as a laicization case.

Neither the AP nor the NYT article mentions the fact that the first letters sent by Fr. Kiesle’s pastor (April 25, 1981) and Bishop Cummins (May 8, 1981) were addressed not to Cardinal Ratzinger but to Franjo Cardinal Seper, Ratzinger’s predecessor as Prefect of the CDF. (1) Ratzinger did not take office until February 1982.

A reply came from Cardinal Seper on November 17, 1981. He requested more information, among other things asking the bishop “not to neglect to send together with the records your votum (vow, solemn statement) on not fearing scandal.” It is obvious from the way that this is put that this is a declaration that the bishop was required to make as part of canon law, and – note carefully – would be required for ALL requests for laicization. In it, the bishop declares that releasing this priest from his ministry and vow of celibacy would not create scandal. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that this particular case involved sexual abuse of a minor. It doesn’t necessarily mean that either Seper or Ratzinger feared scandal because such abuse was involved. Of course, neither the AP nor the New York Times thought to make this clear, probably because of a complete lack of understanding of canon law.

Bishop Cummins forwarded the information, and on February 1, 1982, wrote to the new Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger with yet more details.

There was no reply from Ratzinger’s office. The bishop wrote again on September 24, 1982, and received a reply on October 21 saying that no further information could be given at that time.

Now (though neither the Times nor the AP mentions this) there is a three-year gap with no communications from the diocese of Oakland to the CDF; on September 13, 1985, Bishop Cummins again writes to Ratzinger (and mentions that his last communication was in September 1982). This time he got a more detailed reply. The fact that he received a reply may be due to the fact that unlike the previous times he actually forwarded it to the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. to be put in his diplomatic pouch. These letters would be more likely to be considered than the general flood of mail in the offices of the CDF.

Here is my translation of Ratzinger’s reply – I had just about finished when I learned that the New York Times had provided one. However, I think mine is better; at least more idiomatic.

November 6, 1985

Sacred Congregation
For the Doctrine of the Faith
Prot. No. 469/81a

Most Excellent Lord,

Having received your letter of September 13 of this year, about the case of the dispensation from all sacerdotal obligations which concerns Rev. Steven Miller KIESLE, of your diocese, it is my duty to communicate to you as follows.

Although this Dicastery considers the reason cited for dispensation in the case being asked about to be of grave importance, it nevertheless judges it necessary to consider along with the good of the petitioner, the good of the Universal Church, and therefore it is unable to make light of the detriment that the granting of the dispensation may cause to the Christian community, attentive especially to the youth of the petitioner.

It is fitting therefore, for this Congregation to subject this kind of case (2) to a more careful examination, which necessarily requires a longer period of time.

In the meantime, may Your Excellency not fail to attend to the petitioner as much as possible with paternal care, and in addition explaining to him the reason for acting of this Dicastery, which is habitually accustomed to proceed with an eye first of all to the common good.

Having met with this fortuitous occasion, I attest to you my great esteem, remaining

Your Rev. Excellency’s most devoted(?) [add.mus]

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

The most Excellent and Reverent Lord
John S. Cummins
Ordinary of Oakland

When I first read the letter, it struck me as being so remote and bloodless and unconnected to the actual case, that I thought “It can’t be anything but a form letter.” I wrote this to the man who sent me the original e-mai. Soon after getting home, I found a discussion of the letter on Fr. Z’s blog; he calls it “boilerplate” – and he used to write letters for the Vatican. As I mentioned the Congregation must have been getting a steady stream of requests for laicization when this was written. Essentially the letter is saying, “your request is important to us, we’ll get to it soon, please be patient.” It may not even have been written by Ratzinger personally but perhaps with a stamped signature.

Unfortunately, since the AP and New York Times stories were published on a Friday night (perhaps deliberately), there was very little official comment from the Vatican. Father Lombardi did say that Ratzinger’s letter “was taken out of context.” However, points made by an anonymous source, a canon lawyer, that appeared the same day in the Italian paper La Repubbica, are important. He explained: “It was and still is the practice that dispensations from the priesthood were not granted to those who asked for them until they turned 40 (except for particular cases, where there were children).” When Kiesle was granted his dispensation in 1987, he was 40 years old. He was in fact, undoubtedly laicized in the end by Ratzinger, but this letter is not in the files. (No need to wonder why; the files were supplied by attack lawyer Jeff Anderson, who wants to sue the Vatican in U.S. federal court for its supposed complicity in sexual abuse by the clergy).

It’s more than likely that any application for laicization from someone under the age of 40 would have gotten this reply when their case first came in, and then their individual case would have been looked at and judged more personally.

But hadn’t the case already been there for some time? Why hadn’t it been attended to? According to the AP story, the file was lost at one time – perhaps bouncing around another dicastery in the Vatican. Perhaps it was only returned to the CDF at this time and was treated as a new file/case. It’s impossible to tell on the basis of the meager documentation given in the NYT article, which evidently didn’t reproduce everything in the lawyer’s files.

So it would be very imprudent for anyone (and of course, the NYT has shown itself very imprudent on this subject) to take this letter as an actual comment on any aspect of Fr. Kiesle’s case or the reason for the delay.

The usual bureaucratic red tape, and perhaps Ratzinger’s self-admitted lack of administrative skills, as well as the changeover from Seper’s administration of the Congregation to his, could have caused the delay or losing of the file. (Also see the update below)

Several other things to note: the articles, especially the AP one, mention that the Kiesle was allowed for a time to volunteer for a youth program after he was removed from ministry, until a youth minister insisted on him being removed. It seemed to me that the AP journalist wrote of this in such a way as to suggest that the delay in laicizing the priest (the final decision on which rested with the Pope, not Cardinal Ratzinger) was endangering children. This is completely ridiculous. Fr. Kiesle’s local bishop had the task of restricting his ministry in such a way that he did not endanger children. He evidently did a bad job at this, but this has nothing to do with the fact that the priest had not been laicized. A local bishop has full powers to restrict a priest’s ministry in any way he sees fit (a power he actually loses once a priest has been laicized and no longer under obedience to his bishop—read what Jimmy Akin has to say about this). If the bishop cannot keep the priest from children, the police can and should. What a distant official in Rome does cannot affect this at all.

That the police gave Fr. Kiesle only probation is a crime. That his bishop was careless in keeping him from children is a crime. But whatever the New York Times may think, bureaucratic bungling is not a crime. But reporting this shoddy and malicious is. Where do we apply to “laicize” incompetent journalists?

I will correct and update this story as more comes in.

Update: Saturday, April 10: I saw this great piece by Fr. Fessio last night (or rather way into the early hours of the morning) but was too tired to link to it. He supplies much-needed context: while hundreds if not thousands of laicizations a year were granted during the papacy of Pope Paul VI, under John Paul II, who instituted a stricter policy, in order to protect the nature of the priesthood, it was almost impossible for a bishop to get a laicization of a priest by 1980. This undoubtedly continued for some time afterward. Here is another good reason for the bureaucratic backlog: the much stricter standards for laicization.

Another update, same day: Because I’m too infuriated to work! What infuriated me perhaps even more than the new accusations was the fact that the AP story repeated its own original reporting on another case from Tucson, where Cardinal Ratzinger had supposedly tried to block the laicization of Fr. Michael Teta for soliciting young men in the confessional, a laicization that the local bishop, Manuel Moreno, had pleaded for. They repeated this lie, although the story had already been exploded by the bishop who succeeded Moreno, Gerald Kicanas.

A reporter for the Arizona Star came to Kicanas bristling with the question: “Why shouldn’t I draw the conclusion that Ratzinger’s office significantly delayed resolution of the Teta case, considering the documents I have before me?” The good bishop kindly pointed out to her that she had completely misread her documents. The 1997 letter to Ratzinger, pleading with him to expedite the case, which had been going on for seven years — the letter was the basis for the AP’s original claims and the reporter’s truculent question — was in fact sent to Ratzinger with the records for the just-concluded diocesan trial, and the decision of the judges formally asking for Teta’s laicization. In fact, this was the first point that Ratzinger was even going to be able to process the case. The seven-year delay mentioned was in the diocese! In addition, Kicanas said that his office had received several requests from 1992-97 from the CDF asking them to please hurry up with the trial! In fact, Ratzinger’s office quickly granted the laicization request, but the case dragged on for years on appeal. I cannot believe that AP was unaware of this. So even when it has been absolutely proven that Cardinal Ratzinger handled a case in an exemplary way, he still must be blamed, but now, it is necessary for the press not just to obfuscate, but to out-and-out lie and refuse to correct their stories.

Update: Sunday April 11: At last the AP is supplying some more details and dates. I’ll include just the relevant parts.

Timeline of defrocked priest Stephen Kiesle
The Associated Press
Posted: 04/09/2010 05:04:15 PM PDT

Kiesle timeline

# 1975-1978: Assigned to Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City.

# August 1978: Kiesle is arrested and pleads no contest to lewd conduct, a misdemeanor, for tying up and molesting two boys. Sentenced to three years of probation. His record is later expunged.

# 1978-1981: Takes extended leave of absence, attends counseling and reports regularly to probation officer.

# July 1981: Oakland Bishop John Cummins sends Kiesle’s file to the Vatican in support of the priest’s petition for laicization, or defrocking.

# November 1981: Vatican asks for more information.

# 1982: Kiesle moves to Pinole.

# February 1982: Cummins writes to Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, providing additional information and warning of possible scandal if Kiesle is not defrocked.

# September 1982: Oakland diocese official writes Ratzinger asking for update.

# September 1983: Cummins visits Rome, discusses Kiesle case with Vatican officials.

# December 1983: Vatican official writes Oakland to say Kiesle’s file can’t be found and they should resubmit materials.

# January 1984: Cummins writes a Vatican official to inquire about status of Kiesle file.

# 1985: Kiesle volunteers as a youth minister at St. Joseph’s Church in Pinole.

# September 1985: Cummins writes Ratzinger asking about status of Kiesle case.

# November 1985: Ratzinger writes to Cummins about Kiesle case.

# December 1985: A memo from diocese officials discusses writing to Ratzinger again to stress the risk of scandal if Kiesle’s case is delayed.

# 1987: Kiesle is defrocked.

So it’s clear that the reason there was no answer from Ratzinger for some time was because the file was lost. Odd that Bishop Cummins didn’t mention that in his letter.

Source: Associated Press

Update Monday April 12: This report is evidently from late Saturday, but I wasn’t able to post it until now.

In a Reuters story, a California-based Vatican lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, says that the 1985 missive from Ratzinger was “a form letter typically sent out initially with respect to laicization cases.”

Just as I’ve been saying all along.


(1) Two of the internal memos from the Oakland diocese say that Ratzinger wrote the November 17, 1981 letter, but this is obviously incorrect, and must be due to a failure of memory on the part of the bishop. The letter has Seper’s signature on it.

(2) The AP mistranslated this as “these incidents,” evidently trying to make it sound as the Pope were referring to sexual abuse, where it is clear that it is referring to the petitioner’s request for dispensation from his vows.


This cartoon is so very relevant:


Once More Unto the Breach — 10 Comments

  1. An excellent summary. You may also wish to look at the March 31, 2008 article in the San Jose Mercury News, by Rob Dennis, Jeremy Herb, Matthew Artz, and Chris De Benedetti. According to this article, “Kiesle was removed from the priesthood at his own request in 1981″ and never again functioned as a priest. The entry on Kiesle at the Bishop Accountability website also lists Kiesle’s priesthood as ending in 1981, after which he never appeared in the directory of the Oakland Diocese.

    Kiesle did volunteer to serve as a youth minister at a Catholic church from 1985-1988, which ended when an employee at the Diocese’s Office of Youth Ministry confronted the bishop about this, who then “removed Kiesle from his position,” according to the San Jose Mercury News article. The fact that Rome had not dispensed Kiesle from his vows made no difference to any of this, and it did not take any lengthy canonical process, much less an edict from Rome, to prevent Kiesle from acting as a volunteer youth minister, just a simple order from the bishop. Nor did Kiesle’s being dispensed from his vows in 1987 end his volunteering as a youth minister, for the simple reason that there was absolutely no connection between the process in Rome and what Kiesle was doing in California. The focus on Ratzinger is, again, a red herring.

  2. Another excellent and timely article.

    I hope your article gets wide circulation.

    These malicious attacks are designed to weaken the Church at a crucial time

    God bless.


  3. Great article, but a couple of editorial points — in your second paragraph, shouldn’t “November 9″ be April 9, 2010? And in your sixth paragraph, “requestion” should be “request.”

  4. Thank you for your excellent work, Lori.

    I hope you are ready for the next false case against the Holy Father. It is bound to come (I hope I am wrong though!) The bloodhounds are clearly on the loose and the Pope’s birthday on 16th April and the fifth anniversary of his pontificate on the 19th is around the corner, too good an opportunity for the main stream media to miss in their ongoing campaign against him.

  5. Thanks, Anja. I am just now in the process of posting the novena started by the Knights of Columbus. It’s supposed to start today and last until the 19th, the anniversary of his pontificate. Let’s all take part.

  6. Good work, again, Lori. One point, however, is that it has never been possible for the prefect of the CDF to actually grant the requested laicization. I do not know if you intended to suggest that Card. Ratzinger could grant the request but your post does say “…Ratzinger’s delay in laicizing the priest….” Only the Pope can grant the request. Of course, the opinion of the CDF on a given case basically determines what the Pope will do, in that case. Yet, the decision is the Pope’s.

  7. “1985: Kiesle volunteers as a youth minister at St. Joseph’s Church in Pinole.” I’m wondering if anyone can provide supporting evidence for this item in the timeline, beyond the 2008 SJ Mercury News article that sloppily suggests that Kiesle was “defrocked” in 1981, and is thus a bit suspect as to the details.

    The reason I ask is that the NYT’s posted documents only establish that Kiesle worked as a youth minister in Pinole from late 2007 on — which could very well mean that he didn’t even get that job until AFTER he was laicized.

    … which /could/ support the Akin/Fessio theory that laicization actually worked against the common good in this particular case.

  8. please note that AP also translated “dispensatio” (request by Kiesle) with “removal” (dismiss or force from a position or office)

Join the conversation!