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CURRENT ISSUE:  April 26 , 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 8   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Peace leaders urge support of treaty to ban nuclear weapons
MSJ Dominicans first stop for Visitation team
Bishop details local, Vatican
actions in Kiesle case
(See complete timeline below.)

Reports about cases of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church seem unrelenting in the news media, and now our own Diocese has been pulled into the fray over the case of Stephen Kiesle, a former Oakland priest whose case Pope Benedict XVI is being accused of delaying when he served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As always, it is most helpful to understand the facts in these controversial situations before trying to draw conclusions.

The first fact that all of us in the Catholic community must acknowledge, though, is that some priests did, in fact, sexually abuse the vulnerable. For this, I offer our deepest apologies to all victims and their families, and I wish to assure you of my determination to continue the good work begun and carried out by my predecessors to ensure safe environments for children and young people in our Diocese.

Specifically with regard to the case of Stephen Kiesle, the basic historical facts are these:

• Stephen Kiesle was born on February 14, 1947, and ordained a priest for the Diocese of Oakland on May 19, 1972.

• In August 1978, Kiesle was arrested for lewd conduct with minors and placed on probation. When Bishop Cummins received notice of Kiesle’s abusive activity from the police, he removed him from ministry and did not allow him to return, and diocesan officials conferred regularly with his doctor and attorney to make decisions regarding his living arrangements and activities.

• In 1981, Kiesle, who understood that he would not be allowed to return to priestly ministry, decided to petition the Holy Father to be returned to the lay state; in accordance with canon law, Bishop Cummins wrote a letter in support of this request. In the course of correspondence about the case between the Diocese and the Congre-gation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation sent a letter to Bishop Cummins dated November 6, 1985, and signed by Cardinal Ratzinger.

• In 1987, after Kiesle had turned 40, his petition was granted.

• Sometime in the 1980s, Kiesle apparently contacted a local pastor and began serving as a lay volunteer in St. Joseph Parish in Pinole. When, in 1988, Bishop Cummins discovered this had happened while at the parish to celebrate Confirmation, he had Kiesle removed the next day.

It is also necessary to be aware of certain facts about canon law concerning priests being returned to the lay state in order to understand clearly what transpired here and why.

There are two possible ways that this unusual step can be taken: by a trial through which this is imposed as a penalty, and by a request of the priest himself. The canonical processes and motivations for these two scenarios are quite different.

In the first situation, referred to in canon law as the penalty of “dismissal from the clerical state” (often called, colloquially, “defrocking”), a canonical trial is conducted when a priest is accused of a serious crime which would warrant this punishment. The purpose of the trial, as with all trials, is to ascertain the truth and give the accused an opportunity to defend himself.

This is especially important when dismissal from the clerical state is the penalty being sought, as this is the most severe punishment available and so is applied for the most serious offenses. The sexual abuse of minors is one such offense.

Until 2001, jurisdiction for these trials remained with the diocesan bishop. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then Cardinal Ratzinger came to realize the extent of this problem in the Church. Therefore, at his recommendation, Pope John Paul II reserved this and other “more serious crimes” (e.g., desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, solicitation for a sexual favor within the context of sacramental Confession, violation of the seal of Confession) to the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is important to note that this was a year before the news media began its torrent of reports of these cases going back several decades in the United States, and thus it was not a reaction to this media frenzy. Ratzinger also subsequently, both as prefect and as pope, put other provisions in place to enable these cases to be handled more expeditiously when possible.

The second way a priest may be laicized, known in canon law as the favor of a “dispensation from the obligations of the clerical state, including celibacy,” takes place when a priest finds himself confronted with insurmountable difficulties in living out his priesthood and so requests this favor of the Church, which can only be granted by the Holy Father.

The priest’s bishop, though, must draft a letter, called a “votum,” giving his opinion as to whether or not the priest’s request has merit and should be granted. One of the factors this votum must address is whether or not a favorable response could cause scandal among the faithful.

Moratorium on requests

Pope John Paul II, shortly after his election to the Chair of St. Peter in 1978, expressed concern that these requests were being granted too easily and readily, thereby threatening to undermine people’s understanding of the priestly vocation as an irrevocable “yes” to God and participation in Christ’s own eternal Priesthood (thus, a cause for scandal, i.e., leading the faithful into error in this matter).

He thus declared a moratorium on granting these favors so that the question could be examined and reassessed. When the processing of these requests was resumed in 1980, it was decided that they could be granted for one of two reasons: for elderly priests who had been out of the active priesthood for many years and whose return to active ministry was impossible, and cases in which the evidence is clear that the priest should not have been ordained in the first place.

Moreover, a provision was put into place for these latter cases whereby these requests would not be granted until the petitioner turned 40, as experience showed that frequently younger priests were filing these requests too precipitously rather than working through their struggles.

This explains the reasoning underlying Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter of November 6, 1985, and why it spoke of the need to consider the good of both the petitioner and the Universal Church.

While it acknowledged the seriousness of the reasons for which Kiesle had requested the dispensation, it also expressed concern for the reaction that granting the request could provoke among the faithful given the young age of the petitioner, and that for these reasons the Congregation had to subject the request to a more thorough examination, thus requiring more time.

Moreover, based on my experience of working in the Roman Curia, I can say that Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter clearly appears to be a form letter that would be sent out for any case of a priest under 40 years of age petitioning for laicization, and not a commentary on the specific circumstances of Kiesle’s request.

I also know from firsthand experience just how stringently the under-40 years of age policy was adhered to, as I myself, when I was a parish pastor and assistant to the Tribunal of the San Diego Diocese in the early 1990’s, instructed a case of a priest who had already married and had children, making his return to ministry impossible.

He was in his late 30s when he filed his request and it was not granted at that time, and the letter of response from the Holy See — as Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter in the Kiesle case — reflected the concerns that motivated the moratorium and the policies put into place afterwards. After the petitioner turned 40, his request was granted.

Stephen Kiesle’s return to the lay state happened in this second way, i.e, it was a response to a request for a dispensation from the obligations of the clerical state.

Bishop Cummins’ letter

The original letter of Bishop Cummins in 1981 was not a request to the Holy Father to dismiss Kiesle from the clerical state, but his votum in which he supported the merits of Kiesle’s request. At the time the Diocese of Oakland received the response of Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation (at that time competent for handling these requests) to its inquiry about the status of the case, Kiesle was only 38 years old; two years later the favor was granted.

It is also important to note that the Congregation’s decision concerned only the question of Kiesle’s canonical status in the Church, i.e., whether he remain a priest or return to being a layman. It had nothing to do with punishing him for his serious crimes because a dispensation from the obligations of the clerical state does not impose a canonical penalty but grants a favor.

The Congregation simply responded to Kiesle’s request, with his bishop’s support, to be returned to the lay state and dispensed from his obligations. The diocese, on the other hand, had already addressed the need of protecting children from Kiesle as was its right and duty, and thus there was no need for the Congregation to intervene to do so.

In other words, the diocese and Bishop Cummins acted according to their duty, and so did Cardinal Ratzinger and his Congregation.

Far from being slow to rid the Church of abusers or to cover up for them, Pope Benedict has, more than anyone else, been both aggressive and fair-minded in providing the means for Church authorities to act in a timely and decisive manner.

It is reprehensible that attempts are being made to spin, distort and take tidbits of information out of context in order to portray him as a culprit complicit in these crimes. He needs and deserves our love, respect and support. Let us keep him in our prayers.


Timeline of diocesan responses to clergy sex abuse
Below is a chronological listing of major events in the Oakland Diocese regarding response to clergy sex abuse and the prevention of further abuse.

1988: The Oakland Diocesan Senate of Priests develops a one-page set of guidelines for dealing with any report of sexual abuse by a priest, religious or other Church employee. Policies require prompt response to all allegations, even if the complaint is anonymous. While the allegation is being investigated, the priest is placed on administrative leave. In the case of a minor, if the allegation of sexual abuse is true, the priest will not be returned to ministry.

April 1993: Five victims of clergy sexual abuse picket the diocesan Chancery office on Lakeshore Avenue, asking for apologies from the Church.

Twenty victims of clergy sex abuse attend the regional meeting of Survivors of Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in Union City.

December 1993: Bishop John Cummins issues a four-page updated document outlining diocesan procedures for addressing allegations of clergy sexual abuse and providing solace, counseling and other pastoral assistance to victims.

1996: California enacts Megan’s Law, allowing organizations to access the state’s list of registered sex offenders. The diocesan Catholic Youth Organization begins checking all coaches and referees working in its CYO programs.

March 2000: Oakland Bishop John Cummins conducts an apology service for all survivors of clergy abuse in the diocese at Leona Lodge in Oakland. During the service he promises that the diocese’s foremost concern will be to offer immediate and appropriate care to victims and their families.

March 2002: Carondelet Sister Barbara Flannery, diocesan chancellor, and the newly formed Ministry for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse develop a “No More Secrets” public outreach campaign to help survivors connect with one another and provide peer support.

June 2002: The U.S. bishops issue their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People requiring all 190 U.S. dioceses to conduct background checks on all church employees and all parish and school volunteers who have contact with children. The Charter specifies that all employees and volunteers must also participate annually in a training session on the prevention of child sexual abuse.

December 2003: Between 1994 and the end of 2003, diocesan settlements to victims totaled $1.516 million. Additional funds covered the cost of counseling.

A worshipper comes forward to adore the Cross during an apology service held in 2004 at St. Ignatius Parish in Antioch.
Chris duffey PHOTO
January 2004: .Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron presides at the first in a series of apology services for survivors of clergy abuse. Up to 100 people attend the service at St. Ignatius Parish in Antioch during which the bishop named the priests who had abused in that parish and apologized for the suffering caused to the victims and the entire parish community.

All diocesan and parish employees and all volunteers who work with children under 18 are required to sign a set of guidelines each year acknowledging that they understand what is required to insure a safe environment for minors. The guidelines specify the circumstances in which adults may meet with minors, offer them counseling or discipline, accompany them on excursions, provide lessons or carry out other activities.

August 2004: Diocese introduces its new Safe Environment Project for Children, an educational training program for all parish and diocesan employees and volunteers who work with children. The project complies with the U.S Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

2005: Oakland Diocese agrees to $56 million in settlements and another $270,633 in therapy for victims. Approximately 57 percent of amount is covered by diocesan insurance.

May 2005: One year after its inception, the Safe Environment for Children project announces that it has trained 13,000 volunteers and employees and hopes to double that number by the end of June 2006. Besides the trainings, the project requires that volunteers undergo a Megan’s Law check for past criminal records and all employees are fingerprinted.

October 2005: No More Secrets, the diocesan support group for survivors of clergy abuse and their spouses and family members, sponsors a retreat, “Coming Out of the Darkness,” at Presentation Center in Los Gatos. No More Secrets holds a meeting the first Saturday of each month at an Oakland location, facilitated by a trained counselor.

August 2006: The Safe Environment for Children program unveils its new “Shield the Vulnerable” website, a 90-minute interactive course which teaches priests, diocesan, parish and school staffs and volunteers how to recognize, report and prevent child abuse. The diocese is one of the first in the nation to provide this type of online training.

Tim Lynch, seated at right, one of the committee of clergy sex abuse survivors who planned a healing garden adjacent to the Cathedral of Christ the Light, listens to Koichi Hara, center, explain the stone sculpture at the garden’s center. Hara was representing the sculptor, Izumi Masatoshi, at the garden dedication Oct. 11, 2008. During the dedication, Bishop Allen Vigneron read the entrance plaque: “This Healing Garden, planned by survivors, is dedicated to those innocents sexually abused by members of the clergy. We remember, and we affirm, never again.” Bishop Emeritus John Cummins also attended the dedication.
luis gris photo
October 2008: Bishop Allen Vigneron dedicates the new Healing Garden for survivors of clergy sexual abuse at the new Cathedral of Christ the Light. The inscription on a garden plaque vows, “We remember and we affirm, never again.”

June 2009: The Safe Environment program reports that during the past academic year, it has trained 37,833 children and youth. In addition, 316 priests, 98 deacons, 1,464 teachers, 112 diocesan employees, 1,536 parish/school employees and 30,699 volunteers received trainings in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

December 2009: Diocesan Finance Office reports total settlements paid to victims from 1994 through 2009 was $60,516,000.

April 2010: Both the Safe Environment and No More Secrets programs continue to educate and provide supportive outreach within the diocese. Counseling costs for victims paid in the first three months of 2010 is $5,794.

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