The Vatican has upheld its conviction of Guam’s ousted archbishop for sexually abusing minors and has added a further penalty on appeal that effectively prevents him from presenting himself as a bishop.
The Vatican announced the definitive decision against Archbishop Anthony Apuron Thursday. In doing so, it revealed for the first time that he had been originally convicted of sexually abusing youths in the remote U.S. Pacific territory.
Apuron has strongly denied the charges and said he is a victim of slander.
Despite the Vatican’s judgment, he cannot be criminally charged as the offenses took place as long as 30-40 years ago, meaning the statute of limitations has expired.
The Apuron case has convulsed Guam, which is reckoning with a flood of sexual abuse lawsuits from nearly 200 people alleging decades of abuse at the hands of priests. The archdiocese earlier this year filed for bankruptcy protection.
Pope Francis had named a temporary administrator for Guam in 2016 after Apuron was accused by former altar boys of sexually abusing them when he was a priest. Dozens of cases involving other priests on the island have since come to light, and the archdiocese was facing over $100 million in civil lawsuits when it filed for bankruptcy protection in January.
In Thursday’s decision, the Vatican confirmed Apuron’s original 2018 conviction and the original sentence, which removed Apuron from office and prohibited him from living on Guam in perpetuity. In an additional penalty, the Vatican said he is prohibited for life from using the insignia of a bishop.
That means he cannot present himself publicly as a bishop, with the miter, staff, coat of arms and insignia on his letterhead. While still a bishop in theological terms, and therefore able to ordain new priests for example, the reality is that without an office or the trappings of a bishop, he is essentially demoted to the status of a priest, said canon lawyer the Rev. Davide Cito.
“It seems de facto he is being suspended from episcopal ministry,” said the Rev. Robert Gahl, moral theologian at the Pontifical Holy Cross University.
While other clergy who have been convicted of sex abuse have faced punishments as severe as defrocking, the Vatican under Francis has often resorted to lesser penalties that allow the men to remain as priests but under supervision.
Apuron is a member of the Capuchin religious order, and is beholden to any conditions placed on him by his superior. Many religious orders prefer to keep their convicted priests in the priesthood, so superiors can more closely monitor them and restrict their activity to prevent them from abusing as laymen.
When the Vatican initially convicted Apuron in March, 2018, it didn’t say what exactly he had been convicted of, and Apuron said at the time that the tribunal had dismissed “the majority of the accusations against me.”
The accusations against Apuron had also involved grave financial problems in the archdiocese and the purchase of a valuable property by Apuron for a diocesan seminary that he actually turned over to a controversial Catholic movement.
A lay group that agitated for Apuron’s removal, “Concerned Catholics of Guam,” pushed for an investigation into the archdiocesan seminary, which Apuron opened in 1999 and moved to an 18-acre (seven-hectare) property thanks to a $2 million anonymous donation.
A Vatican-backed inquiry found the property’s control had effectively been transferred to Neocatechumenal Way administrators without Vatican approval.