AP guilty of bad journalism in Oakland abuse reporting, says Ignatius Press founder

AP guilty of bad journalism in Oakland abuse reporting, says Ignatius Press founder

Fr. Joseph Fessio and retired Bishop of Oakland John Cummins.
Fr. Joseph Fessio and retired Bishop of Oakland John Cummins.


Responding to a recent Associated Press article that claimed a 1985 letter showed then-Cardinal Ratzinger “stalled” the case of a pedophile priest in the Diocese of Oakland, Ignatius Press founder Fr. Joseph Fessio said that the letter was not meant to address punishing the priest for sexual abuse. Diocesan spokesman Mike Brown also told CNA that contrary to the AP report, the priest had “no priestly role in the diocese” after he was accused of sexual misconduct.

On April 9, the AP released an exclusive report that claimed to show Pope Benedict resisted “pleas to defrock” a California priest, Fr. Stephen Kiesle, who was accused of molesting two children in 1978. 

The AP cites a letter, written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985, which addresses a request by Bishop John Cummins of the Diocese of Oakland to remove Fr. Kiesle from the priesthood. In his letter to the Oakland Bishop, Cardinal Ratzinger said that a careful review and more time was necessary for the removal of vows.

The AP then claimed that the case “languished” in the Vatican until Fr. Kiesle was “ultimately stripped of his priestly powers” in 1987. The Associated Press also reported that Fr. Kiesle served as a youth group minister in the diocese in the 1980s after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Mike Brown, communications director for the Diocese of Oakland, told CNA on Monday afternoon that the AP did not contact the diocese for confirmation or comment on the story it published last Friday.

The AP article implied that Fr. Kiesle “just wandered about the diocese or had priestly ministries or was still quite active,” after being accused of sex abuse, Brown said.  However, “the answer,” he stressed, “is absolutely not.”

“In 1979 shortly after his arrest and all of these charges,” Brown explained, Fr. Kiesle “was removed formally from active ministry in the diocese by Bishop Cummins. And from that period of November of 1979 forward, Kiesle served no priestly role in the diocese.”

The implication, then, that Fr. Kiesle was “offending again and again during this hiatus before he was laicized  is absolutely incorrect,” Brown insisted.

Responding to the AP's charge that Fr. Kiesle served as a youth minister within the diocese in the 1980s, Brown explained that Kiesle “through a pastor sometime in the 80s, volunteered on his own in a parish youth ministry program without any diocesan sanction or approval.” Upon learning of Kiesle's actions, Bishop Cummins “had the parish pastor remove Kielse immediately,” the diocesan spokesman added.

Ignatius Press founder Fr. Fessio took on additional inaccuracies in the AP story, stressing that the 1985 letter from Cardinal Ratzinger regarding the removal of Fr. Kiesle from the priesthood concerned the issue of dispensing him from his vows, not punishing him for sexual misconduct.

“The bishop can remove his (a priest's) faculties from saying Mass, from hearing confessions, to acting in the parish immediately with no canonical trial and with no appeal to Rome,” Fr. Fessio explained. “It's totally in the hands of the bishop.”

“To say 'oh this priest is an abuser, he should be removed from the priesthood,' well, first of all, you can never remove anyone from the priesthood,” he clarified. “You're always a priest. What you're doing is saying, 'well you're no longer going to practice your priesthood,' which you can do without dispensing from the vows of chastity.”

“Priests are priests forever,” he added, “and a question of whether or not a priest should be dispensed from his vows is a question which is on a different level from a question of how do we punish someone for abusing children.”

Fr. Fessio also stressed that at the time of the Oakland case, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), of which Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect, was not responsible for dealing with sex abuse cases. In fact, it was at Cardinal Ratzinger's consistent urging that the CDF took on sex abuse cases in 2001, so that they could be dealt with in a more timely and efficient manner.

The only reason that Cardinal Ratzinger even wrote that letter to Bishop Cummins in 1985, said Fr. Fessio, was because it involved the dispensation of the vow of celibacy.

In light of the facts surrounding the Oakland case, Fr. Fessio charged that, “journalistically,” the AP has been “extremely unprofessional.”

“When they are doing this kind of reporting, they should be finding people who know about how the Church works, what canon law is, what this process is,” he said.  “They should not go to print until they've talked to people who know.”

However, because “they haven't done that,” said Fr. Fessio, the AP demonstrated “unprofessional journalism of the worst order.”

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