The race is on to bring down the pope and the London Times is giving the New York Times a run for its money. Today the LT has a swathe of articles mainly concerned with an English priest and Benedictine monk, David Pearce, who was convicted last year for sex offences against teenage boys, but it throws in another American case dug up by Associated Press which involves Pope Benedict when, as Cardinal Ratzinger he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Is this the evidence that will finally give the anti-church brigade Benedict’s head on a plate? Regular religion columnist Ruth Gledhill seems to think so:

A 1985 letter bearing the signature of Joseph Ratzinger undermines, possibly terminally, the insistence by the Holy See that Benedict XVI played no part in protecting paedophile priests.

The letter concerns a California priest, Stephen Kiesle, and from the facts provided in the press the story goes like this.

Fr Kiesle was only 31 when in 1978 he was “sentenced [by civil authorities apparently] to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to charges of molesting two young boys” ages not given, in a rectory in San Francisco. Three years later his bishop wrote to the CDF recommending that Kiesle be defrocked. (As in Irish cases, however, it would seem the bishop already had powers to do this under Canon Law.)

That was in 1981, the same year that Cardinal Ratzinger became prefect of the CDF. Imagine, if you will, the mountain of letters awaiting the new CDF head about sexual and every other kind of abuse in the church resulting from the chaotic 1970s. For whatever reason, the CDF did not formally respond to the bishop’s letter until 1985.

The CDF letter, bearing Cardinal Ratzinger’s signature, and no doubt representing his views if not actually written by him, said the arguments for removing Kiesle were of “grave significance”, and he urged more careful review and more time, taking into account the “good of the universal Church” and the “detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly considering the young age” of the priest.

Was this a mistake? Possibly. But, as many have noted on this blog, that was then and this is now. The social context was entirely different and the situation coming to light in the church was unprecedented in recent times.

Was it a “cover-up”? No. It is clear that pastoral considerations required more caution, not for the case to be buried. Didn’t the local population in San Francisco know about Kiesle already? Was he ever returned to active ministry? It seems not, but this is a crucial point that the reports don’t cover. In any case, Fr Kiesle was defrocked in 1987. In 2002 he was arrested and charged with 13 counts of child molestation — all from the 1970s, note. Eventually he served time in prison for molesting a young girl in 1995.

A sad story but no, not the evidence that Pope Benedict once protected sexually abusive priests at the expense of justice and safety of young people. Certainly he wanted to protect the church, that was his job description after all, but only someone who deliberately misreads his character would construe that desire as arrogant or morally corrupt.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet