Pope Benedict's question time.

Michael Sean Winters continues to call down shame on the secular press for its coverage of the latest phase of the sexual-abuse crisis. Winters doesn't see why anyone should be too troubled by how the CDF handledthe case of Stephen Kiesle: "This, we are led to believe, is the smoking gun. Raztinger signed the letter in 1985. That is HIS signature. Case closed."

In 1978 Kiesle was convicted of molesting two boys and was sentenced to three years' probation. (Later he was convicted of molesting a girl.) As Winters points out, the priest sought to be released from celibacy and returned to the lay state. The bishop of Oakland and others who knew Kiesle sent letters to Rome--along with Kiesle's file--in support of the request. (Read the documents here.) Winters writes:

The first document posted at the Times is a 1981 letter from a parish priest who worked with Kiesle. It says that Kiesle lacked "maturity and responsibility and spirituality" and says he only became a priest to please his over-bearing mother.

That's not all it says. Read it for yourself: Fr. Dabovich writes that Kiesle worked mostly with teenagers and children in the parish CCD program. "They liked him and cooperated with him. Yet he acted as one of them: played ball with them; took them to outings and shows and spent time in their homes." He continues: "I was somewhat concerned, but never received any unfavorable comments. Only some years after he left this parish did I learn of some improprieties that were going on while he was here." An experienced Vatican official would know how to read between those lines.Winters:

The second document, also from 1981 and also from a priest who worked with Kiesle, says that Kiesles family was opposed to his becoming a priest and claims that Kiesle was irresponsible and had trouble relating to adults. The letter refers to "the eventual difficulty that Father Kiesle had with the law because of his relationship to young children" but there are no details.

So what? The letter writer, Fr. George Crespin, then chancellor of the diocese, may have felt squeamish about detailing Kiesle's crimes. He may have wanted to stick to the protocol of understatement when communicating with Rome. Note, too, that before euphemistically mentioning that Kiesle ran into trouble with the law because of his "relationship to young children," Crespin also notes that Kiesle showed interest in "ministering" to no one else but young people. Does Winters expect us to believe that CDF officials couldn't connect those dots?

What's more, in the same letter Crespin says that "a sufficient description of the nature of the difficulties" was included in the Acta, which had already been sent to Rome. Later in the post Winters--still ignoring the unpublished Acta we know was sent to the CDF--repeats the claim that Ratzinger was never informed of the full extent of Kiesle's crimes. That assumption is unsupported by the record.

Winters again:

The third document finally is explicit. In the "Votum Episcopi," the document by which the bishop demonstrates his support for Father Kiesles request for laicization, Bishop John Cummins notes that Kiesle had been arrested for molesting six boys, had pleaded "nolo contendere" and received a three-year suspended sentence.

Finally? That letter is not dated, but the first two are: April 25 and May 8, 1981, respectively. Is there any reason to believe Cummins's was sent much later than May 8? Shouldn't his letter have been enough to add a sense of urgency to the case?

More Winters:

First, the request for defrocking was made by Father Kiesle, not by the bishop. Second, the priest had already been removed from active ministry, so the case did not seem urgent insofar as protecting children in the future was concerned (remember,Kiesle was only asking CDF to dispense him from his vows).

That is an interesting distinction. What is the best way to describe this situation, given that Bishop Cummins inserted himself so prominently into the process? Indeed, he all but begged Rome to grant the petition. Given Cummins's role in the case--he and his staff wrote the CDF on several occasions, and the bishop himself flew to Rome to discuss Kiesle--it's not entirely accurate to say that the laicization request was made "not by the bishop."

Look at Winters's second point in that paragraph: "The priest had already been removed from active ministry, so the case did not seem urgent insofar as protecting children in the future was concerned." Is that so? In 1985, Kiesle secured a position as a volunteer youth minister at the Church of St. Joseph in Pinole--two years before he was laicized. As for the question of whether Kiesle was in "active" ministry, consider what Cummins wrote to Ratzinger in February 1982:

It is my conviction that there would be no scandal if this petition were granted and that as a matter of fact, given the nature of the case, there might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry.

So, which was it? Was he already out of active ministry or was it up to the CDF to decide? Bishop Cummins's letter suggests he believed the latter.

Finally, Winters surmises that if Kiesle's case had been presented canonically as a "gravoria delicta" then Ratzinger would have moved swiftly to laicize the man. That is a pleasing thought, but, again, I'm not convinced the record supports it. Exhibit A is Fr. Murphy, who was accused of solicitation in confession--a grave canonical crime that carries the penalty of excommunication. Whatever can be said of that complicated case, one can't say the CDF moved quickly to resolve it. Exhibit B is the case of an Arizona priest who was accused of solicitation in confession, and whose bishop also had to nag Rome to return him to the lay state (the priest was first suspended in 1990, and laicized in 2004).

So, why shouldn't we raise questions about Rome's role in the Kiesle case? Because the local bishop didn't do enough, and besides Ratzinger didn't receive a sufficiently detailed description of the priest's crimes, and besides the process didn't engage the proper canonical technicality? But we don't have to choose to be troubled either by the local bishop or Ratzinger. We need not view the CDF's shortcomings in indirect proportion to the local bishop's, so that the CDF is absolved to the extent that the local bishop failed. The same pattern of argument emerged in the Murphy case. "What about Weakland's responsibility?" Benedict's defenders asked, as though that swept away the questions that remained about the pope's role in the case. Yes, why didn't Weakland restrict Murphy sooner? Why did he wait three years after learning of Murphy's egregious sins before sending the case to Rome? Why didn't Kiesle's bishop restrict him sooner? But they appealed to Rome, so: why did the CDF wait three years after receiving all the information it requested from Cummins to reply? Why was a Vatican official unable to grasp what the Kiesle's superiors meant when they gently referred to his abuse of minors, even going so far as mentioning his criminal conviction? Why wasn't the conviction determinative?

And then there are the larger questions: Why was Ratzinger on this case? Benedict's defenders have claimed that he shouldn't be blamed for Rome's failure to address abuse claims promptly because he wasn't officially responsible for such cases until 2001. Obviously that isn't the whole story. Why not? Why was Ratzinger not really engaged in the Murphy case, which involved the abuse of as many as 200 deaf boys, but he was directly responsible for the decision not to release Kiesle from the full obligations of the clerical state? When Kiesle was finally fully laicized at age forty, whose decision was that? Ratzinger's?

Are secular journalists not asking those kinds of questions, as Michael Sean Winters suggests? Or are they simply not getting answers?At his other blog, hosted by NCR, Winters writes that in the case of Kiesle "not only was there no smoking gun, there was no smoke and no gun." There may be no gun, but Winters is mistaken. There's plenty of smoke. One man can dispel it. And he's not talking.For more on Winters's post, read Mark Silk's critique.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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