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Associated Press said it had obtained the letter, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, resisting the defrocking of offending US priest Stephen Kiesle.

The Vatican says he was exercising due caution before sacking the priest.

Cardinal Ratzinger - who was at the time the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - said the "good of the universal Church" needed to be considered in any defrocking, AP reported.

Vatican officials say the letter was part of a long correspondence and should not be taken out of context.

Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi said: "The press office doesn't believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations."

The allegations come as the Vatican says the Pope is willing to meet more victims of clerical abuse, and as the Vatican prepares to publish a guide on the internet about how bishops should deal with accusations of sexual abuse.

The Catholic Church has been hit by a series of child abuse scandals, including in Ireland, the US, Germany and Norway, and has faced criticism for failing to deal adequately with the problem.

'Grave significance'

AP said the Rev Kiesle was sentenced to three years of probation in 1978 for lewd conduct with two young boys in San Francisco. It said the Oakland diocese had recommended Kiesle's removal in 1981 but that that did not happen until 1987.

Cardinal Ratzinger took over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which at the time dealt with some sex abuse cases, in 1981.

AP says the 1985 correspondence, written in Latin, shows Cardinal Ratzinger saying that Kiesle's removal would need careful review.

Cardinal Ratzinger urged "as much paternal care as possible" for Kiesle.

Kiesle was sentenced to six years in prison in 2004 after admitting molesting a young girl in 1995.

Kiesle is now 63 and is on the registered sex offenders list in California.

On Friday, the Vatican urged Catholic dioceses around the world to co-operate with police investigating sex abuse allegations against priests.

Father Lombardi acknowledged that the Church had lost public trust and said Church law could no longer be placed above civil laws if that trust were to be recovered.

He also said Pope Benedict was prepared to meet more victims of abuse to offer them moral support.

BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott says this is an abrupt change of tone by the Vatican.

He says officials had previously accused critics of trying to smear the Pope personally and only last weekend said he should ignore petty gossip directed at him.

Meanwhile Italian media have reported that the Vatican is to issue guidelines on its website on Monday on fighting paedophilia.

The Vatican has ruled out any possibility of a papal resignation over the scandals.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8612457.stm 

 

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