Guam, an island in Micronesia, is a U.S. territory of 162,472 people. Its people, including Apuron, are U.S. citizens. This means that Apuron was the first U.S. archbishop to be definitively convicted of canonical crimes related to child sexual abuse; a final decision in his case came six days before the Feb. 13 decision that laicized Theodore McCarrick.
But unlike McCarrick, Apuron has not been laicized. Instead, he was removed from his post in Guam and forbidden from living there, and prohibited from using the insignia of a bishop: from wearing an episcopal ring or miter.
The disparity between McCarrick’s sentence and Apuron’s is stunning. While McCarrick was removed completely from the clerical state, Apuron remains a priest in good standing, able to celebrate the sacraments, to teach, and to participate as a priest in the life of the Church.
Canonists have raised serious questions about Apuron’s sentence. If he has been convicted of sexually abusing minors, why is he not subject to laicization? And if he is judged to be suitable for ministry, what does his conviction mean?
The case was heard at first instance by a panel of judges that included Cardinal Raymond Burke, a canon lawyer who is widely respected for his legal expertise even by Catholics who take issue with his theology. How, observers ask, could a panel including a canonist as respected as Burke reach a verdict of guilty, and then hand down such a mild sentence?
Sources close to the archbishop told CNA that Apuron was charged with more than five canonical delicts at first instance, and convicted of only two. At the time of that conviction, the panel of judges prohibited his residence in Guam, and stripped him from his position as Archbishop of Agana.
Apuron appealed the guilty decision. The appeal was not a procedural or perfunctory review, but an entirely new canonical process, administered by the pope himself, with assistance from a group of canon lawyers. In an April 4 release, Apuron said that the “fact and evidence presented demonstrated my total innocence.”
Nevertheless, the appeal failed, and the penalty imposed in the first trial stayed mostly intact. In fact, two provisos were added to the penalty, seemingly added directly by the pope himself. The first was the prohibition against using episcopal insignia, and the second was the addition of the phrase “even temporarily” in the prohibition of residence.
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.
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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.