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The abuser who wanted to be defrocked

The Vatican's reluctance to remove him from the clergy has put a former priest in the middle of the church scandal.

April 18, 2010|By Victoria Kim

Reporting from Oakland — In the early summer of 1978, police arrived at a Union City church looking for the younger of its two pastors, Stephen Kiesle.

He was away, so officers informed the senior pastor, Father George Crespin, that Kiesle was wanted for molesting six children at the church and that there was a warrant for his arrest.

When Kiesle returned to the city south of Oakland, Crespin confronted him with the allegations.

Kiesle sighed. He seemed relieved, as if he had been waiting for this day to come, Crespin recalled. Kiesle surrendered to authorities and eventually pleaded no contest to criminal charges of molesting children. A few years later, in 1981, he asked to be defrocked, something that would require Vatican approval.

Crespin thought Kiesle's request, which was supported by the Diocese of Oakland, would be quickly granted.

But in a 1985 letter made public last week, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Vatican's chief enforcer of doctrine and now Pope Benedict XVI, declined to immediately defrock Kiesle, citing the priest's young age and the "good of the Universal Church." It would be two more years before the Vatican finally granted the request.

Crespin was shocked by Rome's reluctance.

"We didn't anticipate the obstacles that we were going to have to face in Rome," Crespin recalled in an interview with The Times at his current church in Berkeley. "It was like a friendly divorce. . . . We thought, as they say in the sports world, that it was going to be a slam dunk. . . . It was so clear that this is what should be done, and to have [the Vatican] not see it that way was frustrating."

The letter has become a flash point in the current debate over the pope's handling of priestly abuse cases. But it was only one element of the response by the church hierarchy -- stretching from the East Bay to the Vatican -- to years of abuse at the hands of Kiesle. There remain questions today about how the case was handled.

While the diocese was trying to have the priest defrocked, a pastor in the town of Pinole, north of Oakland, allowed Kiesle to volunteer at his church for seven years in various youth programs. He continued to serve at the church even after the Vatican finally removed him as a priest in 1987.

The diocese insisted this week that it had no idea Kiesle was volunteering there until the matter was brought to Bishop John Cummins' attention in 1988. Cummins then sent the church pastor a letter demanding that Kiesle immediately be removed. The pastor, who is now deceased, defended his decision at the time, telling the diocese there was no evidence Kiesle abused anyone while volunteering.

Kiesle was eventually removed as a church volunteer that year. Seven years later, authorities said he was again abusing.

Kiesle grew up in San Jose, and acquaintances said he was drawn to the priesthood in part by his mother, a devout Catholic.

When he was a young priest in the early 1970s, people said he resembled a 6-foot-tall teddy bear. He quickly became known for his empathy with children, playing guitar, telling engaging yarns and seeming to connect with young people in a way not many priests did.

'Kids followed him'

Across the Oakland Diocese, pastors called on him to help set up programs for children in their congregations.

"Kids followed him," recalled Msgr. Antonio Valdivia, who worked with Kiesle briefly in Union City. "He was known for his work with the youth . . . energizing the kids, speaking their language, relating and connecting with them."

At age 25, Kiesle landed at St. Joseph's Church in Pinole. Children flocked around him, earning him the nickname of the Pied Piper. He always seemed to have a camera, constantly snapping photos of the children.

In 1975, he arrived with high recommendations at a blue-collar neighborhood in Union City, where he became Crespin's associate pastor.

At first, things went well. But three years into his term at Our Lady of the Rosary, the church was rocked by allegations of abuse.

Six boys came forward, saying they had been molested by Kiesle while Crespin was away on sabbatical. A parent of one of the boys worked for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department and went to the authorities with the children's statements.

Prosecutors charged Kiesle with multiple counts of lewd conduct. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded no contest to molesting two boys and received three years' probation.

Bishop Cummins removed Kiesle from ministry and offered to send him to an administrative assignment or to a residential therapy facility in Massachusetts, according to a diocesan spokesman who reviewed church records from the time.

But Kiesle refused those offers and got a job at a local wholesale plant business, said the spokesman, Mike Brown.

Kiesle then petitioned the Vatican to be defrocked, saying he had a "potential wife."

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