OAKLAND, Calif. – Six women and one man who alleged they were sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest decades ago filed two separate lawsuits Wednesday alleging the Diocese of Oakland was negligent in hiring the priest and failed to warn parents of potential abuse.
The lawsuits, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, call into question how the diocese handled the case of the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, a priest who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor child molestation in 1978.
After his criminal case, Kiesle asked the Vatican to laicize him in a petition that was supported by diocese officials.
The Associated Press in April obtained much of Kiesle's laicization file, including a letter that bears the signature of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. In the letter to diocese officials, Ratzinger said the arguments for removing Kiesle were of "grave significance," but added that such action required careful review and more time.
Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said then-Oakland bishop John C. Cummins and other church officials knew there were multiple allegations of abuse against Kiesle, and did nothing to prevent the priest from continuing to access children.
"They chose to keep secret — to not warn the parents of children, not tell police, not tell parishioners," said Anderson. "They were more concerned with saving face and protecting their reputation than with the well-being of these children."
Mike Brown, spokesman for the diocese, said officials had not yet seen the lawsuits. He pointed out that after Kiesle pleaded no contest to the charges of abuse, the diocese did not allow him to function as a priest, offered him counseling, and eventually supported his laicization.
The Oakland diocese was among the earliest to develop programs to help those who came forward with charges of abuse, said Brown.
The lawsuits filed Wednesday do not name the Vatican as a defendant and address alleged abuse that happened, for the most part, before Kiesle's child molestation plea and subsequent petition to be defrocked.
One of the plaintiffs, Teresa Rosson, alleges that Kiesle molested her for years, starting in 1973 when she was 11. The lawsuit was filed because church officials had reason to believe Kiesle was a danger to children and did not stop him, the 48-year-old said.
"He could have been stopped in 1968, in 1973, in 1978, but it went on and on," she said with tears in her eyes, her voice breaking. "He continued his abuse with me and with others. I had no protection."
The Associated Press usually does not name alleged victims of sexual assault, but Rosson identified herself at a news conference Wednesday to announce the lawsuit.
Rosson's complaint seeks to circumvent a law limiting how long an alleged victim has to file a civil lawsuit. It cited a section of the state insurance code and applying it to sexual abuse injuries.
The code says when a defendant compensates or partially compensates an injured person, that defendant must name a deadline to file a lawsuit or the alleged victim will lose that right.
Plaintiff's attorneys in the current case say the insurance code applies because the church paid for the alleged victim to attend therapy sessions, but the archdiocese or its insurers never provided written notice involving a deadline.
Attorneys in Southern California recently filed similar lawsuits using the same legal theory, but a judge has yet to rule on its validity.
The diocese recommended removing Kiesle from the priesthood in 1981, the year Ratzinger was appointed to head the Vatican office that shared responsibility for disciplining abusive priests.
At the time, Kiesle had been sentenced to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory. As his probation ended in 1981, the diocese submitted papers to Rome to defrock him.
Kiesle's bishop had warned that returning the priest to ministry would cause more of a scandal than stripping him of his priestly powers. Ratzinger replied four years later, saying he recognized the "grave significance" of the situation but suggested taking more time "for the good of the church" and cited Kiesle's young age. Kiesle was 38.
A number of priests left in the 1970s to marry and when John Paul assumed the papacy in 1978, he made it much harder for a priest to leave, particularly before age 40.
Kiesle's case came soon after those changes, and church officials have said that Ratzinger's letter needs to be viewed in that context. Vatican and diocese officials have denied that there was any cover-up by the Holy See in Kiesle's case.
New rules in 1980 also removed bishops' option of requesting laicizations of abusive priests without holding a church trial. Those rules were ultimately eased two decades later amid an explosion of abuse cases in the United States.
Kiesle was ultimately laicized on Feb. 13, 1987, though the documents do not indicate how or why. They also don't say what role — if any — Ratzinger had in the decision.
Associated Press Writer Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
(This version corrects spelling of former Oakland bishop's surname to Cummins.)