POPE Benedict XVI resisted pleas to defrock an American priest with a record of sexually molesting children, citing concerns including "the good of the universal Church", according to a 1985 letter bearing his signature.
• Stephen Kiesle sexually molested young boys and girls
The correspondence is the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican's insistence that Benedict played no role in blocking the removal of paedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog.
The letter, signed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was typed in Latin and is part of years of correspondence between the Diocese of Oakland in California and the Vatican about the proposed defrocking of the Rev Stephen Kiesle.
The Vatican refused to comment on the letter's contents, but a spokesman confirmed it bore Cardinal Ratzinger's signature.
"The press office doesn't believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations," the Rev Federico Lombardi said. "It is not strange that there are single documents that have Cardinal Ratzinger's signature."
The diocese had recommended removing Kiesle from the priesthood in 1981, the year Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed to head the Vatican office that shared responsibility for disciplining abusive priests. The case then languished for four years at the Vatican before Cardinal Ratzinger finally wrote to Oakland bishop John Cummins. It was two more years before Kiesle was removed.
In the November 1985 letter, Cardinal Ratzinger said the arguments for removing Kiesle were of "grave significance" but added that such actions required very careful review and more time. He also urged the bishop to provide Kiesle with "as much paternal care as possible" while awaiting a decision.
But the future pope also noted that any decision to defrock Kiesle had to take into account the "good of the universal Church" and the "detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ's faithful, particularly considering the young age". Kiesle was 38 at the time.
Kiesle had been sentenced in 1978 to three years' probation after tying up and molesting two young boys in a church rectory in the San Francisco area.
As his probation ended in 1981, Kiesle asked to leave the priesthood and the diocese submitted papers to Rome to defrock him.
In his earliest letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, Bishop Cummins warned that returning Kiesle to ministry would cause more of a scandal than stripping him of his priestly powers. "It is my conviction that there would be no scandal if this petition were granted and that, as a matter of fact, given the nature of the case, there might be greater scandal to the community if Father Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry," he wrote in 1982.
While the papers obtained include only one letter with the future pope's signature, correspondence and internal memos from the diocese refer to a letter dated 17 November, 1981, from the then-cardinal to the bishop. The cardinal was appointed to head the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a week later.
California church officials wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger at least three times to check on the status of Kiesle's case. At one point, a Vatican official wrote to say the file may have been lost.
Irwin Zalkin, a lawyer representing some of Kiesle's victims, said:
"Cardinal Ratzinger was more concerned about the avoidance of scandal than he was about protecting children."
As Kiesle's fate was being weighed in Rome, he returned to Pinole, California, to volunteer as a youth minister at St Joseph Church, where he had served as associate pastor from 1972 to 1975.
Kiesle was ultimately stripped of his priestly powers in 1987, though the documents do not indicate when, how or why. They also do not indicate what role – if any – Cardinal Ratzinger had in the decision.
Kiesle was jailed for six years in 2004 after admitting molesting a young girl in 1995. He is now 63.
Vatican turns to internet in bid to fend off growing criticism
In an attempt to deflect growing criticism, it plans to post a guide for lay people on the internet to explain how it deals with abuse accusations against priests.
It was also announced that the Pope was willing to meet more abuse victims as part of efforts to take part in the healing process.
The "lay guide" is believed to outline the canonical procedures that bishops follow when they receive accusations of abuse.
The guide does not contain any information unavailable to the public. But it puts various sources of canonical procedures together in a concise fashion, without cumbersome canon law citations and Latin phrases.
Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said transparency was an "urgent requirement" of the Church. He defended the Pope as a pastor worthy of respect and support in the face of the "unfounded" allegations.
But in a change of tone, Mr Lombardi said many victims were looking not for financial compensation but for moral help, countering insinuations by some in the Church that the accusations were part of attempts to win large settlements. "For many people, the road to profound healing is only just beginningm and for others it has yet to start," said Mr Lombardi. "In the context of this concern for victims, the Pope has written of his readiness to hold new meetings with them, thus sharing in the journey of the entire ecclesiastical community."
However, the Vatican's offer was dismissed by one group of abuse victims as a meaningless symbol. "Any meeting the Pope may have with victims helps him look good while doing nothing noteworthy," said Barbara Dorris, the outreach director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, a US-based lobby.
"Kids need and deserve immediate protection and dramatic reform, not public relations' ploys and photo ops. They need substance, not symbols," she said.
Sex abuse allegations have swept across Europe in recent weeks, including in Pope Benedict's native Germany.
The Vatican has rejected accusations that the Church, including the Pope, engaged in a cover-up and has blamed the media for what it calls a smear campaign.
Mr Lombardi renewed some of that rhetoric yesterday, saying the media had failed to portray the pervasiveness of child sex abuse in modern society and the way the Church's experience could be useful to society at large.