The Vatican on Saturday defended Pope Benedict from accusations that, in a previous post as a senior Church official, he tried to impede the defrocking of a California priest who had sexually abused children.
In a statement, a California-based Vatican lawyer accused the media of a "rush to judgment" and said the case had never been referred to the Vatican as an abuse case but as one of a man who wanted to leave the priesthood.
In a 1985 letter from the Vatican, typed in Latin and translated for The Associated Press, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the bishop of Oakland he needed more time "to consider the good of the Universal Church" as he reviewed a request by the man to leave the priesthood.
Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena said he could not confirm the authenticity of the letter but indicated that it appeared to be "a form letter typically sent out initially with respect to laicisation cases," when men ask to leave the priesthood.
The letter surfaced as the Vatican fights accusations that the pope mishandled cases of abuse of children by priests when he was a bishop in Germany and a Vatican official before his election in 2005.
Lena "denied that the letter reflected then-Cardinal Ratzinger resisting pleas from the bishop to defrock the priest," the statement said.
MEDIA "RUSHING TO JUDGMENT"
"There may be some overstep and rush to judgment going on here," Lena said.
"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," he said.
Ratzinger wrote in the letter that arguments for Stephen Miller Kiesle to be allowed to leave the priesthood were of "grave significance" but also worried about what "granting the dispensation can provoke with the community of Christ's faithful, particularly regarding the young age of the petitioner."
According to The Associated Press, which first reported the story on Friday, the Kiesle was 38 at the time and had been sentenced in 1978 to three years' probation after pleading guilty to misdemeanour charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a church rectory.
Vatican analyst and papal biographer Marco Politi told Reuters the letter "is a serious blow to the position of Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1980s."
"This document reflects what was the general attitude of the Vatican in those years when the main thing was to care about the image of the Church and about a scandal in a parish," he said.
"The only way for the Church leadership to get out of this situation is to open the archives and to tell clearly what went
wrong in the 1980s and in the 1990s or what was done when."
According to a letter from the Diocese of Oakland to Ratzinger in 1981, Kiesle had asked to leave the active ministry and the diocese asked Ratzinger to agree that he be "relieved of all the obligations of the priesthood, including celibacy."
Lena said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Ratzinger headed from 1981 until he became pope, did not have competence over abuse cases at the time and was simply "undertaking to determine whether the conditions for laicisation were met." Kiesle was eventually defrocked in 1987.
Documents released to Reuters by victims' attorney Jeff Anderson show long delays in responses, the loss of documents at the Vatican and exasperation at the Oakland Diocese.
But Lena said the priest's defrocking was handled "expeditiously, not by modern standards, but by those standards at the time."
"Moreover, while that proceeding was ongoing, there is no known report of the priest having re-offended," Lena said.