Why and how Apuron's case unfolded as it did is a mystery.
The archbishop blamed the failure of his appeal on "a pressure group that plotted to destroy me, and which has made itself clearly known even to authorities in Rome." While such defenses sound often like unbalanced conspiracy theories, it cannot be ignored that something is unusual about Apuron's case.
And theories abound. Questions have been raised about the credibility of witnesses, and the degree to which a web of connections between witnesses, attorneys, and real estate developers might have been a factor in the case. Some Italian journalists have noted that at least one influential ecclesiastical figure in Guam has a close relationship with Manila's Cardinal Luis Tagle. And it is worth noting that Apuron is still subject to lawsuits in Guam, and, after the residency prohibition was strengthened, is completely prohibited from returning there to defend himself.
But untangling this mysterious case will not be easy. And the questions it raises point to issues that the Vatican will likely be forced to address, especially as the number of cases involving the misconduct of bishops seems to be on the rise.
The first is the nature of the pontifical secret. Because cases like Apuron's are subject to a pontifical secret, Catholics are informed of the initial charges, and the final verdict and sentence, but nothing in between. When the sentence and verdict raise questions, as Apuron's do, speculation leads to confusion, and conspiracy theories abound. Eventually, the absence of transparency leads to questions about the integrity of the process, which have already begun to be asked in Apuron's case.
Other high-profile cases are looming, including those of Cardinal George Pell and Archbishop Luigi Ventura. At the same time, the Church is facing a crisis of credibility, and seems mostly to have determined that transparency is crucial to restoring trust.
As the Church continues to take on high-profile canonical cases, questions will likely be raised at the CDF, and by U.S. bishops, about the wisdom of conducting high-profile trials in secrecy, especially without the provision of substantive and direct information at their conclusion.
The second issue raised by the Apuron trial is that of "zero tolerance."
As the Apuron case shows, there is now a serious practical inconsistency in Church governance: while much of the West expects that a cleric convicted of crimes related to child sexual abuse will be permanently excised from ministry, it is clear that the Vatican believes there are cases, such as Apuron's, where a cleric can be convicted of sexually abusing minors and remain in ministry. This inconsistency will likely fuel mistrust in the Vatican's commitment to seriously addressing sexual abuse and coercion in the Church.
To U.S. Catholics, it has become a baseline expectation that no cleric found to have committed an act of sexual abuse or coercion will remain in ministry. When deviations from that expectation are discovered, they are a source of scandal, and of anger. In fact, much of the anger that has erupted in the Church in the past nine months has been the consequence of frustration over instances, some very serious, in which the Church's "zero tolerance" policy has been inconsistently applied, or not applied at all.
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As it happens, it is Archbishop Gregory who was one of the architects of zero tolerance.
In June 2002, Gregory stood at a podium in a Dallas hotel, to offer, on behalf of the Church and his brother bishops, a "profound apology" for clerical sexual abuse
"We did not go far enough to ensure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse. Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we failed to take the necessary steps," he told his brother bishops.
"We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance or, God forbid, with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse."
"Together," Gregory said, "we must ensure that every child in America is protected from sexual abuse by a priest or any representative of the church."
Gregory's speech catalyzed the U.S. bishops to ensure that "zero tolerance" policies would be essential to the "Dallas Charter," and the "Essential Norms," the framework upon which the Church in the U.S. built its response to the problem of child sexual abuse.