This is a Murphy redux.
Despite how The New York Times and the Associated Press and others are interpreting the Kiesle case, the documentation they base their stories on actually show the local diocese to have fumbled this clerical sex abuse case, not the Vatican.
A couple of key points:
1. What we're dealing with here is a petition by the priest for dispensation from the obligation of the clerical state, including celibacy. This is not a situation where the local diocese is asking for the canonical penalty of dismissal from the clerical state, which would require Church court proceedings that the diocese is obliged to start. Fr. Z does a good job explaining this.
The stories I've seen in the mainstream media fail to make that distinction, and thus frame the story inaccurately: The Times headlines its story, "Pope put off punishing abusive priest" [No, this was not a case of "punishing"]. The AP does better, but repeatedly uses the colloquialism "defrocking," which usually is applied to the punishment of dismissal, not granting of a dispensation.
2. That distinction is important because the process for handling petitions and penalties is vastly different — and therefore, it dictates a whole different reading of the Vatican's response. After the granting of thousands of petitions for dispensation from the clerical state in the 1960s and 1970s, the Vatican, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, saw this as a scandal that needed to be addressed (as Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio points out). So the Vatican made the process more difficult and lengthy, with the result that granting of dispensations slowed to a trickle.
This is the context for the Kiesle petition in the early 80s, shortly after Pope John Paul put the brakes on clerical dispensations. Update: A Vatican lawyer says it looks like Cardinal Ratzinger's letter appears to be a form letter used by the congregation in its first response to petitions for dismissal from the clerical state.
3. The Diocese of Oakland had every means at its disposal to contain the threat of Kiesle to children — but apparently did a very poor job of using them.
It could have opened a Church trial to dismiss Kiesle from the clerical state. Apparently it did not. Granted, Kiesle could have appealed that sentence to a Church court in Rome, a process that is also very lengthy and with apparently unpredictable results. (Consider the Anthony Cipolla case, in which a Vatican court ordered him reinstated, the local bishop refused, and the Vatican court finally relented and reversed itself.) Since 2001, of course, the Vatican has ordered that all such cases go to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to determine either administrative penalties or the need for a Church trial for abusive priests. That has expedited the process considerably.
The Diocese of Oakland could have stripped Kiesle of his faculties and removed him from all ministry. But one of the documents shows the outrage of the diocesan director of youth ministry that Kiesle was still participating in parish youth ministry events, apparently even after the bishop and other diocesan officials had been notified.
The point is: Granting Kiesle's petition to be dispensed from the clerical state would have had no practical effect in containing the danger that he posed to youth. In fact, not doing so allowed the diocese to keeper tighter control over Kiesle's activities — and it looks like they fumbled.
There may yet be a smoking gun showing that Cardinal Ratzinger showed disastrous judgment or callous disregard for clerical sex abuse — but this is not it.
Update: California-based Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena makes the same point in a statement released today: "During the entire course of the proceeding the priest remained under the control, authority and care of the local bishop who was responsible to make sure he did no harm, as the canon (Church) law provides. The abuse case wasn't transferred to the Vatican at all."