WALNUT CREEK (CA)
Daily Beast [New York NY]
April 19, 2022
By Justin Rohrlich
Stephen Kiesle, a disgraced former Roman Catholic priest in Oakland, now faces charges for allegedly killing a retiree while drunk driving.
Laurelyn Gunn and her husband, Curtis, loved trivia.
“Between the two of us, we had a lot of otherwise useless knowledge,” Gunn, 63, told The Daily Beast.
On Saturday night, the couple, who lived at Rossmoor, a 55-plus retirement community in Northern California, spent a few hours participating in a monthly trivia event held at the nearby clubhouse.
“A friend of ours put together a pretty strong team, and one of the guys on our team was this guy named Steve. I never knew his last name,” Gunn said. “And we were walking home from the trivia game when Steve, who was sitting across the table from us, killed Curt.”
“Steve” turned out to be Stephen Kiesle, a disgraced former Roman Catholic priest in Oakland who in 2004 was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually assaulting a young girl a decade earlier at his vacation home. Kiesle was released in 2009 and moved to Rossmoor the following year. He had previously served three years probation after pleading no contest in 1978 to misdemeanor charges that he tied up and molested two boys. He was later charged with 13 counts of child molestation linked to allegations from the 1970s, but too much time had passed to bring the cases to trial.
Kiesle, now 75, applied to leave the priesthood in 1981. Years of waffling by the Vatican followed, and Kiesle was finally defrocked in 1987. He is now named in some two dozen lawsuits filed by victims and their families, according to attorney Rick Simons, who is one of the lawyers overseeing roughly 1,000 sexual abuse cases currently facing the Catholic Church in Northern California.
On Saturday, as Laurelyn and Curtis, 65, made the 3/4-mile walk back to their house, they suddenly heard a loud rumbling sound behind them. That’s when Kiesle’s car jumped the sidewalk and Gunn, who had already buried one husband, found herself widowed for the second time.
“I am probably two inches away from being dead myself— the car actually clipped my elbow,” she said. “Fortunately, I got bruises and scrapes. My husband was dead on impact… Curt didn’t die, he was killed. There’s a difference. Just as if somebody shot him with a gun.”
Most residents at Rossmoor were unaware of Kiesle’s history, including Gunn herself. But now that people are beginning to find out about his past conviction and myriad claims of child sexual abuse, they’re “really upset,” she said.
“We’re a community of grandparents,” Gunn explained. “And that means there are grandkids around. And to have a known pedophile here, is not sitting well.”
Kiesle, who suffered only minor injuries in the crash, was arrested by the Walnut Creek Police Department on charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and DUI. Cops booked him into the Contra Costa County jail, where he remains on $250,000 bail.
“He should not have been in public, he should not have been behind the wheel,” said Gunn. “Now I’m facing the rest of my life without my husband.”
Joey Piscitelli, a volunteer advocate in Northern California for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, believes Kiesle should have been locked away long ago. Had Kiesle ever been properly held accountable, Curtis Gunn—who played pickleball with Piscitelli’s sister, a Rossmoor resident—would still be alive today, he alleged.
“If the Diocese of Oakland had done their job, and protected kids instead of predators, Kiesle would’ve been in jail forever and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to kill somebody,” Piscitelli told The Daily Beast. “The guy has destroyed a lot of lives.”
Piscitelli, who grew up in the area, said he was not molested by Kiesle but by another priest at school. However, he attended Kiesle’s church and has interacted with him numerous times—including while protesting outside Kiesle’s house.
Piscitelli said he has personally heard from people claiming to have been abused by Kiesle, and that he helps connect them with the proper authorities, as well as legal resources, to pursue whatever recourse may be available.
The signs were there, yet church leaders did nothing, according to Piscitelli.
In a 1988 letter to the Diocese of Oakland, youth ministry official Maurine Behrend said she had been shocked to learn that “a convicted child molester is currently the youth ministry coordinator at St. Joseph’s Parish in Pinole,” namely, Kiesle.
No action had been taken over the course of eight months of repeated notifications about Kiesle, which was undermining Behrend’s faith in the system, she wrote.
“A simple phone call to the pastor from the bishop is all that it would take: ‘We do not allow convicted child molesters to work with children in this diocese,’” argued Behrend, who died in 2020.
Many years ago, after spearheading a demonstration outside St. Joseph’s, which Kiesle then led, Piscitelli was contacted by a woman who had seen him on the news. She said she had been sexually abused by Kiesle when she was 10, but that she had not been able to file criminal charges because the statute of limitations had run out.
Some of the former priest’s alleged victims have spoken to Piscitelli in confidence, saying they don’t want to go public for professional reasons, he said. Others feel embarrassed, or don’t want their families to know.
In many instances, Piscitelli thinks lawsuits could be the best way to achieve some modicum of justice if prison is not a possibility.
“There’s a law in California, that if your rape or molestation as a minor ends in your death, the family can go after the entity responsible,” he explained.
To that end, Piscitelli pointed to the case of Jim Bartko, an associate athletic director at the University of Oregon, who claimed in a 2020 lawsuit that he was molested by Kiesle at St. Joseph’s between 1972 and 1975.https://www.youtube.com/embed/4Nwa1cPpS08?&enablejsapi=1&playsinline=0&autoplay=0
Bartko didn’t say a word about the alleged abuse for 44 years, and suffered from insomnia, anxiety, and alcoholism. His marriage fell apart because of his drinking, which also eventually caused Bartko to lose his job.
Shortly before filing suit against Kiesle, Bartko published a memoir called Boy in the Mirror: An Athletic Director’s Struggle to Survive Sexual Abuse as a Child. The suit was filed during a three-year period which allowed claims to be brought that would have otherwise expired under California’s statute of limitations.
But four days after he filed, Bartko collapsed while working out and died at the age of 54. The lawsuit was subsequently dismissed in light of Bartko’s death.
“He died from liver failure, cirrhosis of the liver, after a lifetime of drinking,” Bartko’s lawyer, Rick Simons, told The Daily Beast.
Earlier this year, Bartko’s children took advantage of a new law allowing families of deceased abuse victims to sue for damages, posthumously.
Simons, who is now representing Bartko’s kids, brought the suit against the Oakland Diocese for allegedly failing to prevent Kiesle from abusing Bartko as a boy.
“There’s a good argument to say [Kiesle] should have been in prison for the rest of his life,” Simons said, noting that Kiesle has long been “treated very forgivingly by the criminal justice system.” He said there are “about 20 to 25 [civil] cases currently, involving his misconduct, against the Oakland Diocese.”
The Diocese of Oakland did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. Kiesle does not have an attorney listed in court records, and was unable to be reached.
Now, Kiesle may finally be held criminally accountable—but for Curtis Gunn’s death, not for his decades of alleged abuse.
Laurelyn Gunn told The Daily Beast her husband is not only the second spouse she’s outlived, but also the second loved one she’s lost to a drunk driver in the past four years.
“In November 2018, my 32-year-old nephew was standing on a sidewalk in Portland, [Oregon], and was hit and killed by a drunk driver who lost control of his car,” she said. “So my family is now dealing with the impact of two similar but completely senseless deaths.”
Of her late husband, Gunn described him as kind, giving, and always willing to help a neighbor.
“If anyone needed anything off their top shelf, a lightbulb changed, or one of the hinges on the cupboard door came off, he would not only go and fix it, but he would go shopping online, get the hinge, and he wouldn’t ask for anything in return,” said Gunn. “He loved pickleball, he was getting into playing golf, and he really enjoyed things like dominos and pinochle and cribbage. He was just a real friendly, generous-with-his-time, helpful person. That’s why I was in love with him.”