Suspended priest returns

The Enquirer, Cincinnati/February 2, 2009

A suspended Cincinnati priest was allowed to return to active ministry today after a "church trial" found the abuse allegations against him could not be proven.

The Rev. Donald E. Shelander, who has been on administrative leave since March 2006, is the first accused priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to face a trial under church law since the clergy abuse scandal began more than eight years ago.

The case could be a precursor to as many as six other trials in the archdiocese involving suspended priests whose cases remain open.

Shelander, 72, was accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy in the 1970s and early 1980s while he was pastor at St. Mary Parish in Urbana.

The priest denied the accusations and defended himself through a lengthy legal process, which included a Vatican review and a trial before a panel of three people trained in church, or canon, law.

The case never was heard in a secular court because, as in most abuse cases, the allegations were made long after the time limit for filing charges expired.

Although church trials carry no risk of jail time, the stakes still are high for priests because they could be found guilty of the charge and permanently removed from the priesthood. Church officials say the trials, which are not held in public, are thorough and are designed to give the priest and his accuser a chance to be heard.

"One of the reasons it takes a long time is the system is designed to protect the rights of all the parties," said Dan Andriacco, a archdiocese spokesman.

Victims' advocates, however, decried the secrecy surrounding the trials and said the process favors priests over accusers.

"It was a secret trial, so we don't know what happened," said Christy Miller, co-founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Cincinnati. "They created the game, they made the rules, they hired the umpires and they declared the winner."

Church officials said little about the case Monday, other than that Shelander, who is retired, will not be given an assignment in the archdiocese but is "free to exercise his priestly ministry." Efforts to reach Shelander were unsuccessful.

The case against Shelander began in late 2005 when his accuser, now an adult, told church officials he was abused when he was between 14 and 18 years old.

Shelander was suspended and the archdiocese investigated the case, sending its findings to the Vatican for review.

Andriacco said the archdiocese made a recommendation to the Vatican regarding Shelander's case, but he would not say what it was.

The Vatican then sent the case back to the archdiocese with instructions to hold a trial.

Church trials follow canon law, as opposed to secular laws, but the proceedings bear some resemblance to those in state and federal courts. The "promoter of justice" acts as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer is assigned to represent the accused.

The case is decided by a three-judge panel instead of a jury or a single judge. Each judge, who may or may not be a priest, is from outside the archdiocese and is trained as a canon lawyer.

The accuser is permitted to participate and testify, but Andriacco would not say whether the victim, who has not been named, took part in Shelander's trial.

While secular trials require proof "beyond a reasonable doubt," a church trial requires the judges to believe with "moral certitude" that the priest is guilty of the offense. Church law defines moral certitude as "the firm and unwavering assent of the mind."

Andriacco would not say whether other trials are expected, but six other priests remain suspended while the archdiocese and the Vatican investigate the claims against them.

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