Analysis: Gregory, Apuron, 'zero tolerance,' and pontifical secrets

Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica the seat of the Archbishop of Agana Guam Public Domain CNA Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica, the seat of the Archbishop of Agana, Guam. Public Domain.

Thursday morning, the Vatican announced the fates of two American archbishops: one has become the next Archbishop of Washington, and the other has been declared guilty of child sexual abuse; his final appeal had been exhausted.

The next moves of Archbishop Wilton Gregory, soon to be installed as Washington's archbishop, will be carefully scrutinized, and the inside story of his appointment has already begun to shed some light on the dynamics of influence and authority between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops.

But equally important is the story of Archbishop Anthony Apuron, who had until today been Archbishop of Agaña, Guam. Apuron was initially found guilty of some acts of the sexual abuse of minors in March 2018. His appeal consisted of a full trial with a second instance court, and, it was announced today, he has lost that appeal. The decision was made Feb. 7, the Vatican reported, and announced today.


Apuron is accused of sexually abusing several minors, many of them former altar boys, including his own nephew.

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.

More in Vatican


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.

(Story continues below)

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.

Before that now-famous U.S. bishops' 2002 meeting in Dallas, Gregory had already spent eight years addressing serious and difficult sexual abuse cases in Illinois. "Zero tolerance" of clerics found to have committed sexual abuse against minors was central to his approach.

"Zero tolerance" was the approach he championed in Dallas, and became fundamental to the U.S. approach to addressing clerical sexual abuse.

But while "zero tolerance" is a central plank of the U.S. approach to the problem of clerical sexual abuse, it has been more controversial in other parts of the world.

While Pope Francis has long endorsed a "zero tolerance" approach to clerical sex abusers, his action has not always matched his rhetoric.

The pope has a history of intervening, in several high-profile cases, on behalf of clerics who stood accused of clerical sexual abuse, among them Fr. Mauro Inzoli, an Italian removed from ministry by Benedict XVI, restored to ministry by Francis in 2014, and then dismissed from the clerical state by Francis in 2017, and Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who was accused in 2015 of complicity in child abuse but kept in office until 2018.

And the pope is not alone in facing questions about commitment to a "zero tolerance" approach to clerical sexual abuse.

At the October synod of bishops on young adults, several bishops brought up the idea of including language about "zero tolerance" in synod documents. Objections were raised, especially by synod fathers from the developing world. The language didn't make it into the text, or into the pope's recently released apostolic exhortation on youth, Christus vivit.

Apuron, who is a U.S. citizen, is now forbidden from living in his native Guam. If he settles the mainland U.S., where "zero tolerance" is an expected facet of Church governance, his ministry, and even his presence, may lead to serious outcry, especially since the nature of the delicts for which he has been convicted is largely unknown. That outcry might force the Vatican to apply more consistent measures, and offer more definitive guidelines, with regard to the concept of "zero tolerance."


Most Catholics who want to see how the U.S. Church will handle clerical sexual abuse will be carefully watching Archbishop Wilton Gregory in the months to come. And they should. But those interested in what the pope will do should also carefully watch the case of Archbishop Apuron. And, as the U.S. bishops get closer to their crucial plenary meeting in June, astute Catholics will be watching to see whether Gregory's "zero tolerance" approach will meet with favor in Rome, and what that could mean for Apuron.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.