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Vatican defends Pope Benedict's response to Oakland sexual abuse case

April 10, 2010 |  1:55 pm
The Vatican insisted Saturday that Pope Benedict XVI had done nothing wrong when, earlier in his career, he hesitated to defrock a California priest who had admitted molesting two boys.

A Vatican lawyer said it was the local bishop, John Cummins of Oakland, who bore primary responsibility for protecting children from the abusive priest, and that the pope, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had acted appropriately when he declined to take immediate action against the cleric, Stephen Kiesle.

“It’s the job of the bishop to discipline the priest,” said the lawyer, Jeffrey S. Lena of Berkeley, in an e-mail to The Times. “[T]he canonical trial and punishment are going to be meted out by the local bishop ... The pope is not a five-star general ordering his troops around. That is simply an incorrect idea about the allocation of authority as between the pope and his fellow bishops.”
Cummins, now 82 and retired, had written Ratzinger in the early 1980s, when the future pope was the Vatican’s top official in charge of doctrinal enforcement, asking that the Vatican agree to Kiesle’s request that he be “laicized,” or defrocked. At the time Kiesle had been relieved of his duties as a priest after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd contact stemming from the molestation of two boys, ages 11 and 12.

Ratzinger had replied that, while the matter was of “grave significance,” he needed more time and information before deciding whether to grant the request. It was granted two years later. In the interim and for a period afterward, Kiesle volunteered at a parish in Pinole, where he was later accused of having abused children. Benedict has come under criticism in recent weeks as documents have exposed what some perceive as his plodding management of several sexual abuse cases. In every case, the Vatican has suggested the responsibility fell on lower-ranking officials.

Cummins could not be reached for comment Saturday. He told the Associated Press previously that he “didn’t really care for” Kiesle and didn’t recall having written Ratzinger about him in 1985. In his e-mail, Lena said it would have been normal for Ratzinger to weigh a request for defrocking carefully and deliberately.

It is, he said, “a rigorous canonical process of deep religious significance that in many instances takes time, particularly in the pre-electronic communication age. … It is not like simply taking off a collar, or firing a person from a job.”

Moreover, he said, defrocking is not the primary way the church disciplines priests. “It is an important mechanism for ridding the priesthood of malefactor priests,” he said. “But it is not the primary mechanism of protection of children.“

-- Mitchell Landsberg and Victoria Kim