The Times Take 3: The Stephen Kiesle Files


Ratzinger MemoI find myself praying a lot for Pope Benedict these days.  From within the U.S., of course, it’s easy to overestimate how much the sniping of the New York Times actually roils global Catholicism.  Nonetheless, as the Times stacks one leaky bucket atop another, it’s easy here to forget that they all leak.  And, because of both the uniquely spiritual outlook of the Roman Catholic Church and the highly technical nature of her legal terms, it’s easy to impute malice and self-protection to garden-variety Vatican heel-dragging.  The saga of Stephen Kiesle, the third and most recent of the front-pagers for the Times, is a case in point.

I feel compelled, in the interest of fairness, to make a few points specifically concerning Pope Benedict’s alleged negligence in this regard:

  • The first version of the story essentially reported that Ratzinger had resisted the punishment of an abusive priest “for the universal good” of the Church.  The Times, however, failed to explain that the CDF was handling only the laicization aspect of the Kiesle case.  The following day—after the damage was done—they allowed Mr. Jeffrey Lena, the canon lawyer who handled the case, to make this point on the second page.  There Mr. Lena indicated, moreover, that the letter seems to have been a “form letter”—albeit one specific to the case of a younger priest—sent out to encourage patience with the lengthy bureaucratic process.  The response, written in stylized Latin, does not seem to have been a fresh composition reflecting Kiesle’s specific circumstances.
  • “Laicization” or “losing the clerical state” is easily misunderstood.  It is not the same thing as removing a priest from ministry.  Laicization is much more like removing a priest’s sacramental status than his ministerial status (though even the former is a bit of legal fiction, since even a laicized priest retains sacramental “character”).  A priest may abandon or be removed from his ministry without being laicized, that is, without ceasing to be considered a priest in the eyes of the Church.  A familiar example would Fr. Maciel Degollado of the Legionnaires of Christ, whom Benedict, in view of Maciel’s old age and obvious guilt, assigned to a life of retirement and penance without laicization.  Hence, when Bishop Cummins wrote to Ratzinger saying, “There might be greater scandal to the community if Fr. Kiesle were allowed to return to active ministry,” he was surely correct.  However, the decision to return Kiesle to ministry was Cummins’, not Ratzinger’s, and was distinct from the decision to laicize.  In fact according to the official request sent to John Paul II, Kiesle had already “procured a job of reasonable support” outside a parish and had made an “irrevocable decision to leave active ministry”–effective two years before Ratzinger assumed office in 1982.  I repeat: Kiesle was not ministering as a priest.
  • Moreover, even though dismissal from the clerical state is a grave penalty in the eyes of the Church, dismissal against the cleric’s will has always been rather rare.  The vast majority of cases belonged to priests who willingly request laicization so as to pursue or regularize a marriage in the Church.  In these cases, laicization is seen more as a relief than a punishment.  Hence, in view of the fact Kiesle had already abandoned active ministry and was no longer a threat in this sense, rushing his case to the top of the queue may very well have sent the wrong message (i.e., “If you’re desperate to get out, there’s one sure way to expedite your case …”).
  • These disturbing thoughts bring us to the question of “scandal,” which also has a technical meaning in Catholic theology: inducement to sin.  Ostensibly, the most damning phrase in the whole correspondence comes from Ratzinger’s “form letter,” which claims that the CDF is “accustomed to proceed by holding the common good in first place before its eyes” (procedere solet habito prae oculis praeprimis bono communi).  To the typical reader of the Times, it sounds like Ratzinger is advocating secrecy or stall-tactics to protect the Church’s reputation, that is, to avoid “scandal” in the everyday sense of the term.  However, Kiesle had already gone through criminal trial, had been exposed to public shame, and had abandoned ministry.  There was nothing left to hide.  The CDF, on the other hand, probably understood “scandal” and the “common good” in terms of the stability and theology of the priesthood.  The prospect of effortless laicization prompts struggling priests to make ill-considered decisions in times of discouragement or temptation.  It also encourages seminarians to move through their formation thoughtlessly.  Finally, a laicization that appears to follow too “automatically” on various crimes—even despicable ones like child abuse—tends to link the power of the priesthood too closely with the holiness of priests.  The point is that even a sinful priest remains a priest (even if the nature of his sins indicates that he should never return to public ministry).  ‘Tis an assurance to quite a few Catholics—myself included—to know that the holiness of the sacraments is not limited by the priest who confects them.  I would wager that this sensibility is the “common good” that the CDF wants to protect from “scandal.”
  • Finally, just to see whether we were paying attention, the Times includes in its documentation and story a complaint about Kiesle working in a diocesan youth program dated 1988.  The purpose of its inclusion seems to be to suggest that Ratzinger’s inaction led to more children being put in harm’s way.  However, it rather shows the opposite.  As the Times itself reports, Kiesle had already been laicized under Ratzinger in 1987.  But this did little, in reality, to protect children.  Just as Kiesle could be removed from ministry before laicization, he could return to active ministry after laicization.  The responsibility for oversight lay with the local Church.

Summary: In no way, that I can see, did Ratzinger’s treatment of the Kiesle case put children in danger.  It suggests no attempt to cover up a crime.  It suggests no particular indulgence toward abusers.

13 Responses to The Times Take 3: The Stephen Kiesle Files

  1. Henry says:

    Wonderfully clear post Aaron – bravo.



  2. Tom Piatak says:

    An excellent post.

  3. Pete Lake says:

    Aaron, well done.

  4. Peter Nguyen says:

    Excellent work!

  5. Marc says:

    Not bad Aaron.

  6. crystal says:

    Question –

    Is there a difference between excommunication and laicizing? I mean, can a priest who has been excommunicated still act as a priest? I’m thinking of the SSPX bishops and also of Fr. Roy Bourgeois. If he cannot still act as a priest, why would the Vatican not simply excommunicate Kiesle …. that act seems to be accomplished much faster than laicizing.

    I’m also wondering about other priests laicized, like Fernando Lugo – did that take a long time to accomplish?


  7. Cosmx says:

    I wonder when humans will evolve to a sufficient level to be able recognise and to free ourselves from the indoctrination and abuse that most of us suffer from religion?

    How unfortunate that seemingly intelligent people cannot free themselves from the nonsense with which, as children, they are indoctrinated?

    Whether one is indoctrinated with beliefs in virgin births, walking on water, ascending into space – or Mahommad climbing a golden ladder to a creature in the sky, or Ganesh the elephant headed god, – someone must be wrong! In fact, the rational thought, that marvelous ability with which we are all born but is stripped from us by religious indoctrination clearly shows us that everyone who believes religious myths is wrong. How unfortunate that this nemesis called religion plagues us. Thousands of years of cruelty, lies and mercilessness, perpetrated by religious organisations such as the catholic and other churches and muslims.

    When are going to rid ourselves of this rubbish and the cruelty that religion brings with it?

  8. Pete Lake says:

    Cosmx, I cannot agree with the statements in your post, although I am sure glad you are reading this blog, whose contributors are already doing a fine job, with the help of the Helper, of shepherding the flock, even as they continue to undergo their own formation. I will concedede, however, that your conclusions might be somewhat accurate IF we consider “religion” purely and exclusively through, in your own words, “rational thought.” Therefore, rather than leave you with yet another rational argument to consider, I would ask only that you consider the following words of Pope Benedict the XVI, that: “Only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.” Consider these words, not just with your rational thought, but with your whole person (mind, heart, body, and soul). This is what our Catholic Church, our Saints, our religion, do for us: they brings us into relationship with Jesus Christ and the Graces which He has to offer us. AMDG.

  9. […] The Times Take 3: The Stephen Kiesle Files, Whosoever Desires April 12, 2010. Good analysis by Aaron Pidel, SJ, upon which he concludes: “In no way, that I can see, did Ratzinger’s treatment of the Kiesle case put children in danger. It suggests no attempt to cover up a crime. It suggests no particular indulgence toward abusers.” […]

  10. Whereas this is great apologetics, I am not at all
    drawn into this Secular Society’s created problem:
    I have no problem with either my faith, or my Leader:
    Jesus the Christ of recorded history, and the center
    of my contemplative being!

    His appointed Administrator, El Papa, the Spirit
    leads: why “me” worry?!

    Secondly, the media is run by non-believers speaking
    the language of illiteracy and not of both informed
    faith nor of pew’s praxis: morons! This latter gets
    no attention by most Catholic Press, and yet in my
    discernment should be Epistemological Priority Rule
    Number One! All else, number two, and in turn, getting little coverage!

    Where are our Catholic priorities?!
    Where is better Ignatian Discernment?!

    The Spirit WILL, as He has, from the beginning,
    guide, inform, and protect us.
    We are not doing this in the soul’s of believers,
    nor in the grip of desperate attention-seeking misguided crowd zealots out there!
    To the extent we don’t live and practise this reality,
    we too are like them: we should never be!

    And after this storm will ALWAYS come another:
    let’s grow up! Spiritually, that is!

    While The Naked Public Square only sees us as a
    naked institution, we view ourselves as a spiritually
    clothed Mystical Institution following the mystery
    of His leading partings of the many seas yet to
    cross. But part them He will.
    And drown the Secularist Ideologues He will do, too!

    That Abraham had sex outside of marriage did not
    deter God, the NYT’s say nothing about!
    But our history is not just based, but premised on
    sin, ever since Adam left Eve (!)

    As Ignatius blasts us, seek “Balance!” And balance
    in this worldly concocted public trial is our
    mission, and not mere defence!

  11. ex friend says:

    Thank you for clarification of the Catholic church’s process.

    Are you sure that this statement is accurate? “However, Kiesle had already gone through criminal trial, had been exposed to public shame, and had abandoned ministry.”

    I have read countless times that Kiesle’s early molestation charges had been handled only within the church (which I believe is a Biblical right) and had NOT been released to the public. In fact, his file had been “sealed” by the church.

    If Kiesle’s sexual abuse had been made public, Pinole police would have investigated him in the disappearance of Amber Swartz Garcia as soon as she became missing since Kiesle lived a mere dozen houses away from her on a quiet street in Pinole. Had that happened, the security system at his work could have been checked to determine whether he was at work or had departed work … either making him a suspect or helping to clear him … at least of that one case. The excavation of his yard and use of sonar equipment, even at his house in Truckee, might have been avoided.

    Now he lives on a quiet street in Rossmoor, a senior community in Walnut Creek. Let’s pray that he’s no longer preying on the children of unsuspecting parents and grandparents. Let’s pray for God to seize his heart and transform him into someone who loves the Lord. Then we who are also sinners saved by grace will rejoice in God’s grace and mercy.

    Megan’s Law registry has up to date information, including photos. I only wish there were a way to tell the difference between someone who was 18 and had consensual sex with a 17 year old in a dating relationship vs. a serial pedophile who, thankfully, has been convicted.

  12. Exfriend Keyslee says:

    Cosmx: Praying for you.

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