The Church has procedures to address cases involving child sexual abuse and those who are accused, said Msgr. John Shamleffer, judicial vicar of the archdiocese.
Leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently voiced concern for victims of clergy sexual abuse while offering praise for Pope Benedict XVI's long-standing leadership in dealing with abuse cases. Media reports in the past week have focused on a long-ago case in the pope's former diocese in Germany and another decades-old case that was presented to the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which was directed by the pope, then-Cardinal Joesph Ratzinger.
"If someone believes there's been an offense, we encourage them to bring it to civil authorities," Msgr. Shamleffer said.
The Church has canonical procedures to address a wrong or offense, he said. Sometimes civil and canonical procedures both are conducted, and "sometimes if it's not a civil case there still could be a canonical procedure if someone has a grievance involving the Church," said Msgr. Shamleffer, a canon lawyer.
"Each person has a right to be heard, and a right to a defense," he added. "There are procedures that have to be followed."
The archdiocese has been involved in processes leading to the laicization of priests, which removes them from the clerical state. It is conducted when the Church recognizes that a priest is no longer going to return to his priestly ministry or was never properly suited for the priesthood and should not have been ordained. A national policy of the U.S. bishops bars any priest who has an offense against a minor from any further ministry and calls for the possibility of involuntary laicization.
Each case is unique, involves a trial and can be lengthy, perhaps a year, Msgr. Shamleffer said. "People have a right to present testimony, gather defenses. There has to be a judgment, and there's a right to appeals."
The accused person is removed from pastoral work until the case is decided.
Msgr. Shamleffer has followed the cases in the news and especially was interested in the response of the judicial vicar of Milwaukee, who said the case there was referred to the Roman Rota, which handled the cases at that time and the case never made it to the office that was directed by Cardinal Ratzinger.
The thinking of experts about an abuser's ability to be healed has changed, Msgr. Shamleffer added. "The Church and all of society today has a heightened vigilance and awareness of these situations."
Reported cases of child sexual abuse in U.S. dioceses and religious institutes declined between the 2008 and 2009, according to audits to evaluate how Church institutions are complying with the U.S. bishops' 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."
The annual report also showed that costs to dioceses and religious orders for lawsuits and other allegation-related expenses also decreased. The vast majority of those allegations related to incidents dating back decades.
In addition, the report shows how dioceses and religious orders are complying with provisions calling for education about sexual abuse for children and all who work with them, and for handling all allegations of sexual abuse, among other obligations included in the charter.
Some information for this story was provided by Catholic News Service.