Worries about California priest came early in career

OAKLAND -- Even in his seminary days in the early 1970s, there were questions about California priest Stephen Kiesle: Colleagues said he had trouble relating to adults, lacked spirituality and didn't seem committed to anything but youth ministry.

Those colleagues, who helped make the case to the Vatican in 1981 seeking to let him leave the priesthood, said they were concerned before Kiesle was ordained, and more so after revelations Kiesle had molested children in his parish.

"He was not grown up. He spent more time with kids than with people his own age. You get suspicious of that. There's something wrong there," said John Cummins, former bishop in the Diocese of Oakland, now retired.

Still, future Pope Benedict XVI resisted pleas from the diocese to act on the case, according to a 1985 letter in Latin obtained by The Associated Press that bore his signature as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

It would take another two years before the Vatican doctrine watchdog office headed by Ratzinger would approve Kiesle's own request to leave the priesthood in 1987.

Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena said the matter proceeded "expeditiously, not by modern standards, but by those standards at the time."

Kiesle pleaded no contest in 1978 to lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two boys and was sentenced to three years probation. He took a leave of absence from his parish position, and in 1981 returned and asked the Oakland bishop to be laicized, or removed from the priesthood.

In building a case to laicize Kiesle, the Rev. George Mockel of the Oakland Diocese asked priests who had worked with Kiesle to share their opinions of his time in seminary and work in the priesthood after being ordained in 1972.

One colleague was the Rev. Louis Dabovich, of the Church of the Good Shepherd, where Kiesle served as a deacon in the early 1970s.

"Stephen Kiesle was a very intelligent, personable and industrious young man, and yet he lacked maturity and responsibility and spirituality," Dabovich wrote. He said teenagers and children liked him; "Yet he acted as one of them: played ball with them; took them to outings and shows and spent time in their homes."

Dabovich said he was somewhat concerned about Kiesle's relationship with the youths, but never heard complaints. Only years after Kiesle left the parish did Dabovich say he learned of "some improprieties."

Dabovich also said he had spoken with then-Oakland bishop Floyd Begin about concerns he had regarding Kiesle, including the books he was reading and his general lack of maturity and spirituality.

"To me these were signs of some internal turmoil and the need to satisfy his nature, the need to share his life with someone," Dabovich wrote. "However he was ordained and most probably my observations were not taken seriously."

Dabovich said it could be detrimental if he were to remain in active ministry.

Mockel replied that there "has been a general 'tightening up' in Rome regarding these petitions. I am sure, however, that your cogent observations will be most helpful."

Another colleague, the Rev. George Crespin, the diocese chancellor, worked with Kiesle at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Union City. He described Kiesle as talented, creative and bright, but also disorganized, unmotivated and highly undisciplined. Crespin wondered why Kiesle joined the priesthood.

"It was almost impossible to get him to take an interest in the sick, in counseling individuals or families, in offering himself for activities in the parish that were unrelated to youth," he wrote.

California church officials wrote to Ratzinger at least three times to check on the status of Kiesle's case and Cummins discussed the case with officials during a Vatican visit, according to correspondence obtained by AP. At one point, a Vatican official wrote to say the file may have been lost and suggested resubmitting materials.

As Kiesle's fate was being weighed in Rome, the priest returned to suburban Pinole to volunteer as a youth minister at St. Joseph Church. He was eventually defrocked in 1987.

Kiesle, who married after leaving the priesthood, was arrested and charged in 2002 with 13 counts of child molestation from the 1970s. All but two were thrown out after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law extending the statute of limitations.

He pleaded no contest in 2004 to a felony for molesting a young girl in his Truckee home in 1995 and was sentenced to six years in state prison.

Now 63 and a registered sex offender, Kiesle lives in a Walnut Creek gated community, according to his address listed on the Megan's Law sex registry. An AP reporter was turned away when attempting to reach him. William Gagen, an attorney who represented Kiesle in 2002, has not returned repeated calls seeking comment.

More than a half-dozen victims reached a settlement in 2005 with the Oakland diocese alleging Kiesle had molested them as young children.

Bishop Cummins said Friday he never had a good feeling about Kiesle. In his 1981 letter to the Vatican, Cummins said it seemed clear, with hindsight, that Kiesle should never have been ordained.

Cummins said the years of back-and-forth with the Vatican tested the diocese's patience but it was typical of the time.

"These things were slow and their idea of thoroughness was a little more than ours. We were in a situation that was hands on, with personal reaction," he said.

Only the Vatican can approve removing someone from the priesthood, whether it is requested by the priest or his superiors. At the time of Kiesle's petition, a variety of Vatican offices handled them. In 2001, Ratzinger required all cases involving abuse claims to go through his office, streamlining the process.

Cummins said he believed Ratzinger was following what was the practice of the time, and "that the Pope John Paul was slowing these things down."

In the November 1985 letter, Ratzinger says the arguments for removing Kiesle were of "grave significance" but such actions required very careful review and more time. Lena, the Vatican attorney, said Ratzinger's instruction to offer Kiesle "paternal care" was a way of telling the bishop he was responsible for keeping Kiesle out of trouble. Lena said Kiesle was not accused of any child abuse in the 5 1/2 years it took for the Vatican to act on the laicization.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said the letter showed no attempt at a cover-up.

"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," he said.

A woman who has alleged in a lawsuit that Kiesle sexually abused her as a child reacted angrily on Saturday to the Ratzinger letter. She said it seemed the Vatican was more concerned with scandal than protecting children.

The woman identified herself by her first name only, Anne, during a news conference in San Diego with her attorney. The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, however, Anne has chosen to speak publicly about her experience.

She pleaded to the pope: "Do the right thing, for once. Please. The whole world is watching. I'm watching. And if you want any chance at saving the Catholic Church you need to do something and you need to do it now."

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Flaccus reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Eric Gorski in Denver, John Mone in San Diego, Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles and Victor L. Simpson in Rome contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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