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Future pope had concerns about defrocking California priest accused of molestation, letter shows

April 9, 2010 |  2:18 pm

Pope Benedict XVI, in his earlier role as enforcer of Roman Catholic Church doctrine, counseled patience in 1985 when he was asked to defrock a California priest accused of child sexual abuse, saying he needed more time to consider the impact of the case on “the good of the Universal Church,” according to records released Friday by lawyers for the victims.

A letter from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to Bishop John Cummins of Oakland is the latest document to shed light on Benedict’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis in his earlier career, when he headed the Vatican office that ultimately assumed full responsible for such cases.

Stephen Kiesle, shown at a 2003 heqaring. Credit: Susan Tripp Pollard / Associated Press In it, he acknowledges the “grave significance” of the charges against the priest, Stephen Kiesle, who had pleaded no contest to charges of molesting two boys.

But Ratzinger said he needed more time and information, in part because of the “detriment that [defrocking] can provoke with the community of Christ’s faithful.”

It would be another two years before the Vatican relented to the request, which apparently came on Kiesle’s initiative. By itself, the letter suggests mainly that Ratzinger was reluctant to act hastily in such a grave matter as defrocking a priest, something which is done only rarely.

Church critics, however, may regard it as part of a pattern by the future pope of seeming more concerned with the church’s reputation than with the trauma undergone by sexual abuse victims, about whom he says nothing in the document.

Details of the letter were reported Friday morning by the Associated Press. The Times subsequently obtained a copy of the document. (The entire letter, translated by the AP, appears below).

A spokesmand for the Vatican declined to comment on the substance of the letter Friday, but confirmed its authenticity.

“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. “It is not strange that there are single documents which have Cardinal Ratzinger’s signature.”

-- Mitchell Landsberg and Victoria Kim

Translation of the letter: Pope urged caution in case of California priest accused of molestation [Text]

Upper photo: Pope Benedict XVI. Credit: Associated Press

Lower photo: Stephen Kiesle, shown at a 2003 hearing. Credit: Susan Tripp Pollard / Associated Press