The sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clerics has taken center stage in the media, but this time with a more sinister twist: reports suggest that Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, was complicit in a conspiracy to cover up the crimes. The breadth of objective historical and canonical research concerning these events would be more than enough to demonstrate the Pontiff’s innocence; unfortunately for our headline and sound-byte driven culture, even that is too much information to synthesize; truth be damned. One case that particularly hits home for Bay Area Catholics: the case of Stephen Kiesle of the Diocese of Oakland.
According to Fr. Louis Dabovich, a priest of the Oakland Diocese, Kiesle grew up as a troubled young man who was pressured toward the priesthood by an overbearing mother. He was academically intelligent, but displayed a deficient aptitude for ministerial responsibility with streaks of disobedience toward superiors. Nevertheless, his personal troubles escaped his superiors at the seminary, and he was ordained for the Diocese of Oakland May 19, 1972. He preferred to focus more on youth ministry than on other aspects of parish life. He was arrested in 1978 for abusing six boys, aged 11 to 13. At his trial, Kiesle plead nolo contendere and was sentenced to a three year suspended prison sentence. After serving his sentence, Kiesle formally submitted his request to be removed from the responsibilities of the priesthood. Oakland bishop at the time John Cummins wrote Rome to present Kiesle’s petition. Note: in Catholic theology, the priesthood is a permanent mark on the soul; one cannot be removed from priesthood, only dispensed from clerical obligations.
All these preliminary events took place prior to 1982, when Card. Ratzinger took his post as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome. The initial correspondences between Oakland and Rome concerned not Ratzinger, but his predecessor, Card. Seper. After Rome requested more information regarding Kiesle, Cummins responded to the new prefect Ratzinger in a letter dated Feb 1, 1982, advising that “there might be a greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry.” For educated Catholics, this should raise eyebrows; a bishop needs no permission from Rome to remove one of his priests from active ministry. After several more correspondences between Rome and Oakland, Ratzinger responded with the “smoking gun” letter of November 6, 1985 where he advised Cummins to “take as much paternal care as possible” for Kiesle, and did not grant the dispensation.
Was Ratzinger’s refusal to grant the dispensation “proof” of complicity in the scandal? No. The Code of Canon Law in force at the time prohibited the dispensation of priests under 40. This law was to ensure that the priesthood would not be trivialized. Nevertheless, when Kiesle turned 40 in 1987, his dispensation was automatically approved. At this time authority to invetigate sexual abuse belonged only to the Congregation for Priests. In any case, Ratzinger did not have the power to contravene Canon Law by granting the dispensation. In fact, it is through Ratzinger’s efforts that the competence to investigate sexual abuse by priests was finally transferred to the CDF.
It is amazing to see the public reception to so-called Catholics (even certain bishops and priests) who openly contravene Church teaching and papal authority, as if to mock its ineffectiveness. But in deplorable cases such as clerical sex abuse, where bishops have broad discretion with regards to the imposition of ecclesiastical punishments on their priests, it is even more amazing to see the finger of blame turned to Rome, criticizing the ineffectiveness that it once mocked.