Benedict resisted move to defrock abuse priest, 1985 letter shows

The future Pope Benedict XVI resisted pleas to defrock an American 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 correspondence, 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 paedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog office. The letter, signed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is part of years of correspondence between the Diocese of Oakland in California and the Vatican about the proposed defrocking of Fr Stephen Kiesle. The Vatican refused to comment on the contents of the letter, but a spokesman confirmed it bore Ratzinger's signature.

The diocese recommended removing Kiesle from the priesthood in 1981, the year Ratzinger was appointed to head the Vatican office that shared responsibility for disciplining abusive priests. The case then languished for four years at the Vatican before Ratzinger finally 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.

In the November 1985 letter, Ratzinger urged the bishop to provide Kiesle with "as much paternal care as possible" while awaiting the decision. But the future pope also noted that any decision to defrock Kiesle must take into account the "good of the universal church". Kiesle was 38 at the time.

Kiesle had been sentenced in 1978 to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanour charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory.