LOS ANGELES — The future Pope Benedict XVI resisted pleas to defrock a California priest with a record of sexually molesting children, citing concerns including "the good of the universal church," according to a 1985 letter bearing his signature.
The letter, obtained by the Associated Press, is the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican's insistence that Benedict played no role in blocking the removal of pedophile priests during his years as head of the church's doctrinal watchdog office.
Signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, it was typed in Latin and is part of years of correspondence between the Diocese of Oakland and the Vatican about the proposed defrocking of the Rev. Stephen Kiesle.
The Vatican confirmed Friday that it was Ratzinger's signature and said it was a typical form letter used in laicization cases. Attorney Jeffrey Lena said that the matter proceeded "expeditiously, not by modern standards, but by those standards at the time," and that the bishop was to guard against further abuse.
Another spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said the letter showed no attempt at a coverup. "The then-Cardinal Ratzinger didn't cover up the case, but made clear the need to study the case with more attention, taking into account the good of all involved."
The diocese recommended removing Kiesle (KEEZ-lee) from the priesthood in 1981, the year Ratzinger was appointed to head the office that shared responsibility for disciplining priests.
The case then languished for four years at the Vatican before Ratzinger wrote to Oakland Bishop John Cummins. It was two more years before Kiesle was removed; during that time he continued to do volunteer work with children through the church.
In the November 1985 letter, Ratzinger says the arguments for removing Kiesle are of "grave significance" but added that such actions required very careful review. He also urged the bishop to provide Kiesle with "as much paternal care as possible" while awaiting the decision, according to a translation for the AP.
But the future pope also noted that any decision to defrock Kiesle must take into account the "good of the universal church" and the "detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ's faithful."
Kiesle had been sentenced in 1978 to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory.
As his probation ended in 1981, Kiesle asked to leave the priesthood and the diocese submitted papers to Rome to defrock him.
In his earliest letter, Cummins warned Ratzinger that returning Kiesle would cause more of a scandal than defrocking him.
"It is my conviction that there would be no scandal if this petition were granted and that . . . there might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return," Cummins wrote in 1982.
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. At one point, a Vatican official wrote to say the file may have been lost and suggested resubmitting materials.
Diocese officials considered writing Ratzinger again after they received his 1985 response to impress upon him that inaction would harm the church, Rev. George Mockel wrote in a memo to the Oakland bishop.
"My own reading of this letter is that basically they are going to sit on it until Steve gets quite a bit older," the memo said. "The circumstances of this case would seem to make it a greater scandal if he were not laicized."
Kiesle was stripped of his priestly powers on Feb. 13, 1987.
Kiesle, who married after leaving the priesthood, was charged in 2002 with 13 counts of child molestation from the 1970s. All but two were thrown out. He pleaded no contest in 2004 to a felony for molesting a young girl in 1995 and was sentenced to six years in prison. Now 63 and a registered sex offender, he lives in a Walnut Creek gated community.