A newly discovered letter provided to the Associated Press seems to prove that the future Pope Benedict XVI resisted defrocking a California priest who had tied up and molested two young boys in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s.
The letter signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger opposes the recommended defrocking, citing concerns including "the good of the universal church." It may be the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican's assertion that the pope played no role blocking the defrocking of pedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog office.
The letter, from 1985, is typed in Latin and was discovered as part of a series between the diocese of Oakland, Calif., and the Vatican on the proposed defrocking of the accused priest, the Rev. Stephen Kiesle.
The Vatican confirmed today that it was the pope's signature on the document, but it also defended the pope.
"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," a spokesman said.
The recommendation to defrock Kiesle was made in 1981, the same year that Ratzinger took charge of the Vatican office that shares the responsibility for disciplining priests.
For four years after that recommendation was made, nothing was done while the Oakland diocese-based priest continued to do volunteer work with children in his capacity with the church.
Finally, Ratzinger wrote to Oakland Bishop John Cummins. In November 1985, the future Pope wrote that, although the reasons to remove Kiesle were of "grave significance," he added that the matter needed to be dealt with very carefully and that more time was needed before a decision was made.
In the meantime, he urged the bishop to provide counsel for the accused priest.
The pope also had other considerations, however. In addition to the facts of the case, the pope wrote that the, "detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ's faithful" should be taken into account.
California church officials were adamant that the priest be laicized, or removed from the priesthood.
In another memo obtained by the Associated Press, California Rev. George Mockel wrote, "My own reading of this letter is that basically they are going to sit on it until Steve gets quite a bit older."
The memo continued, "Despite his young age, the particular and unique circumstances of this case would seem to make it a greater scandal if he were not laicized."
Kiesle was 38 at the time Ratzinger wrote the letter in question.
Kiesle ultimately was stripped of his priestly powers on Feb. 13, 1987, but no documents have surfaced explaining how -- or why.
However, Kiesle's criminal record did not end with his priesthood.
Although the statute of limitations on his crimes protected Kiesle from criminal prosecution for his acts in the 1970s, he pleaded no contest in 2004 to molesting a young girl in his Truckee, Calif., home in 1995. He was sentenced to six years in state prison for the felony.
Cummins, reached by the Associated Press today, did not blame the current pope, saying, "When he [Ratzinger] took over, I think he was following what was the practice of the time, that Pope John Paul was slowing these things down. You didn't just walk out of the priesthood then."