Oakland Diocese, Ex-priest Sued over Alleged 1985 Assault on 5-year-old in Closet
By Matthias Gafni
San Francisco Chronicle
March 3, 2020
As a future pope and officials from the Catholic Diocese of Oakland weighed the fate of a convicted child molester priest more than three decades ago, the Rev. Stephen Kiesle took a 5-year-old boy into a closet of a Pinole church and sexually assaulted him, according to a claim filed Monday in Alameda County Superior Court.
The boy, now a 39-year-old man living in Del Norte County, sued Kiesle, the diocese and retired Bishop John Cummins, claiming that they knew the priest was a danger to children but allowed him to continue working with children. It has previously been reported that internal church letters found that Cummins had been communicating about Kiesle’s behavior with then-Vatican official Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, in 1985, the same year the plaintiff alleges he was assaulted.
“What makes this case unique is literally everybody in the chain of command knows and yet they allow this guy to go back to the parish,” said the plaintiff’s attorney John Manly. “They put him in his target population. To me, that’s not a mistake or reckless, it’s malicious.
“It gives you a view into the heart of the Holy Father and the culture of the church,” Manly continued. “It’s a culture that values ordained men and nobody else.”
The lawsuit was made possible by AB218, which took effect Jan. 1 and provided a three-year window for new claims of childhood sexual assault that otherwise might have passed the statute of limitations.
A diocese spokeswoman said Monday the church had not yet been served the lawsuit and it does not comment on pending litigation. Spokeswoman Helen Osman said she would forward a request for comment to Cummins to see “if he is capable of providing a response.”
“Bishop Cummins is elderly and lives in a facility providing advanced care,” she said. Requests sent to Kiesle and his former attorney were not returned Monday.
The plaintiff, who is referred to as “John OAK-4 Doe” in the lawsuit, did not want to speak for this article, his attorneys said. In 1985, he was 5 and his parents, who were active in the parish, enrolled him in the youth program. Kiesle, who has since been removed from the priesthood, pulled him into a closet and abused him over the course of a year, according to the claim.
“This abuse, molestation and fondling included but was not limited to: Kiesle secluding the plaintiff at St. Joseph’s, Kiesle exposing his genitals to the plaintiff and Kiesle forcing the plaintiff to fondle (the priest’s) genitals,” the complaint alleges. “This sexual abuse occurred on more than one occasion, and happened on the premises of St. Joseph’s.”
The boy has struggled since, said his co-counsel Alex Cunny.
“It’s a struggle when your first sexual experience is at age 5 with a grown man in a closet at church,” Cunny said. “It’s something that affects you the rest of your life.”
The lawsuit represents one chapter in a dark history involving one of the most notorious Catholic priest abusers in the Bay Area.
Kiesle was ordained in 1972. Six years later, he pleaded no contest to lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two boys at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Union City, where he was a priest and teacher.
In 1981, after serving three years of probation, Kiesle asked to be laicized — removed from the priesthood. The Oakland diocese supported his request and forwarded it to the Vatican, which must approve defrocking. That was the same year that Ratzinger began heading the Vatican department that disciplined priests.
As the two sides went back and forth, Kiesle began volunteering as youth minister at St. Joseph in Pinole. In 1985, Ratzinger wrote a letter to Cummins, in Latin, asking him to “consider the good of the Universal Church together with that of the petitioner.”
Noting Kiesle’s young age at the time, 38, the future Pope encouraged the Oakland diocese bishop to provide the troubled priest “with as much paternal care as possible.”
Kiesle was eventually defrocked in 1987.
In 2002, Kiesle was charged with molesting five children three decades earlier when he was a priest at Santa Paula Church in Fremont. However, the following year, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated portions of a 1994 California law that had extended the statute of limitations for child molestation, and Kiesle’s charges were dropped.
In 2004, Kiesle pleaded no contest to molesting a young girl at his Truckee home in 1995. He was sentenced to six years in prison. Now 73, Kiesle lives in a gated retirement community in Walnut Creek, according to the Megan’s Law list of registered sex offenders and voter registration records.
Melanie Sakoda, a member of SNAP, a Catholic priest abuse survivors group, said Kiesle should never have been allowed to continue with the church after his 1978 conviction.
“The responsibility for anyone injured at St. Joseph’s Church ... by Father Stephen Kiesle should rest squarely on the shoulders of the Diocese of Oakland,” Sakoda said. “It is absolutely despicable to put children in harm’s way like that. Catholic leaders should not have allowed this man anywhere near boys and girls, but most especially should not have given him the authority to work directly with them.”
Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mgafni