By JESSE McKINLEY and KATIE ZEZIMA
OAKLAND, Calif. – A San Francisco woman who says she was molested by the Oakland priest at the center of a case that has raised questions about Pope Benedict XVI‘s handling of sexually abusive clergy members described in vivid terms on Sunday how she was sexually abused and intimidated by her attacker.
The woman, Melinda Costello, said she had been abused for several years, beginning at age 7, as a parishioner in nearby Fremont, Calif., where the Rev. Stephen Kiesle was working at a church as a seminarian in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Ms. Costello, now 48 and on disability because of arthritis, says that Mr. Kiesle – who was ordained as a priest in 1972 – first playfully invited her to sit on his lap, part of a youthful demeanor that he fostered, she said, including wearing purple tennis shoes in church.
“He was considered to be the Pied Piper,” Ms. Costello recalled in an interview. “He was a kid. And who doesn’t like a big kid?”
But Ms. Costello says Father Kiesle’s touching and tickling soon progressed to fondling her chest and genitals. “He told me the devil was inside me,” she said, adding that the priest sometimes cast his actions as an exorcism. “I always knew that I was uncomfortable and that it wasn’t right.”
Her account came on the same day a priest in Massachusetts used his sermon to condemn the church’s handling of the broader sexual abuse scandal, describing some in the clergy as “felons” and suggesting that Benedict resign.
“We must personally and collectively declare that we very much doubt the veracity of the pope and those of church authority who are defending him or even falling on the sword on his behalf,” said the priest, the Rev. James J. Scahill of St. Michael’s Parish in East Longmeadow.
“It is beginning to become evident that for decades, if not centuries, church leadership covered up the abuse of children and minors to protect its institutional image and the image of priesthood.”
Nearly a decade after the abuse described by Ms. Costello, Father Kiesle was convicted in 1978 of tying up and molesting two boys in another California church rectory. But he was not defrocked until 1987 – despite concerns voiced to the Vatican over several years by Bishop John S. Cummins of Oakland.
Mr. Kiesle, who could not be reached for comment, served three years of probation for his 1978 conviction and underwent treatment. In 2004, he was convicted of a second sex offense – molesting a girl in 1995 in Truckee, Calif. – and sentenced to six years in prison.
He now lives in Walnut Creek, Calif., where he is registered as a sex offender.
Questions about the slow pace by which Father Kiesle was removed from the clergy have intensified since it was learned that Benedict – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and a top Vatican official – had signed a 1985 letter telling Bishop Cummins that Father Kiesle’s case needed more time and that the “good of the universal church” should be considered in coming to a decision.
A Vatican lawyer has defended the church’s handling of Father Kiesle’s case, saying that it had acted “expeditiously” by its own standards and that the onus was on Bishop Cummins to make sure the priest did not abuse again.
The handling of the sexual abuse problems by the church – and the future pope – has caused deep rifts.
From his pulpit on Sunday, Father Scahill, a vociferous and frequent critic of the church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis, delivered a scathing sermon in which he said, “There surely is solid ground here for severe doubt” about what the Vatican says it knew about the sexual abuse.
“And if by any slimmest of chance the pope and all his bishops didn’t know – they all should resign on the basis of sheer and complete ignorance, incompetence and irresponsibility,” Father Scahill said.
For the last eight years, Father Scahill, 63, has criticized how the church and the Diocese of Springfield, where his church is located, have handled the sexual abuse crisis. His criticism began, he said in an interview after his sermon, after parishioners came to him in 2002, distraught about the crisis that was shaking the Archdiocese of Boston and the Diocese of Springfield.
“They said something has to be done, shepherd our concerns,” Father Scahill said. “That’s what priests are supposed to do, be a shepherd.
Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, said Father Scahill’s comments “don’t reflect the Diocese of Springfield or the priests of this diocese or the bishop.” He said, “We think the comments are unfortunate and an unfortunate use of the pulpit.”
Other reaction to the sermon was mixed. One parishioner stood up and yelled “heretic” during one reading of the sermon, Father Scahill recalled, and said he supported the pope. But others praised the priest.
“I think it’s very brave,” said Jean Montana, 82, who greeted Father Scahill after the 10 a.m. Mass, where he received a standing ovation. “You have to give him a lot of credit.”
She added: “I agree with him. I totally agree that something has to be done.”
In Oakland, the diocese has confronted sexual abuse scandals in the past. On the grounds of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, where Ms. Costello spoke with reporters on Sunday, there is a small “healing garden” devoted to victims of such crimes. “We remember, and we affirm,? reads a plaque in the garden, which contains a shattered heart-shaped stone. -Never again.”
Mike Brown, a spokesman for the diocese, said Father Kiesle was removed from active ministry in 1978.
“For all purposes, his life in the diocese was over,” Mr. Brown said, adding that his continued membership in the priesthood from 1978 to 1987 had been mischaracterized. “It’s been implied that the diocese just let him roam about as an employee, but that’s not the case.”
Mr. Brown said, however, that the diocese would be examining records this week to determine what role – if any – Father Kiesle might have had in church activities during that period.
At the cathedral on Sunday, Hector Rivera, an unemployed construction worker attending services, said he was frustrated by the continued reports of pedophilic priests. “They work for God,” Mr. Rivera said, his 4-year-old son standing beside him. “They shouldn’t be doing it.”
Mary Barnes, a nurse from Berkeley, said she believed Benedict should step down because he failed to lead in a time of crisis. “To have the highest levels of our church giving out excuses for not protecting our children is unforgivable,” Ms. Barnes said. “It’s the farthest thing imaginable from the message of Jesus.”
For Ms. Costello, who settled a civil suit with the church several years ago, it took years to come to grips with her abuse, she said. No longer a Catholic, she said she could not even tell anyone about the attacks until she was safely into her adulthood.
“I was terrified,” she said. “He was God.”
Jesse McKinley reported from Oakland, Calif., and Katie Zezima from East Longmeadow, Mass.