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Vatican: Abuse crisis

Archbishop Apuron receives a blessing (CNS)

Recent events have revealed a broken culture

At the start of this week, the eyes of the world were on the Vatican, where Pope Francis was preparing to receive the bishops of Chile in an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, the details of which he learned through a special investigation that he ordered after the protracted saga had reached the papers and become a scandal. The three days set aside for those meetings will have come and gone by the time this edition of the Catholic Herald is published, so this is an opportunity to step back and take a broader view of the crisis facing the Church at present – a crisis that reaches the highest levels of governance.

Whatever else one may think or say about the present condition of the Church, one thing is certain: the specific culture her clerical and hierarchical leadership inhabits is broken. The brokenness of clerical culture is such that the Church risks mission failure: the Church cannot be a credible witness to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ if the men who are her leaders care more about protecting their position than they do about protecting children; more about keeping up appearances than they do about keeping child abusers out of the ranks of her clerical leadership.

It has been 16 years since the global scope of the crisis began to be apparent. The damage it has wrought has not been fully surveyed. In his letter to the bishops of Chile summoning them to Rome for the emergency meetings, Pope Francis wrote of “many crucified lives” ­– lives that certainly number many thousands worldwide. Predator clerics high and low continue to abuse children and get away with it. Half measures will not avail as remedy.

“Justice must be seen to be done,” explained abuse survivor and victims’ advocate Marie Collins, who was a founding member of Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors and served three years before resigning in frustration at the commission’s ineffectiveness, which she attributed to a lack of support (and even active resistance) within the Vatican.

By that standard, one episode in another protracted abuse scandal sets in relief the inadequacy of the prevailing attitude towards the administration of justice in the Vatican: that of the disgraced former Archbishop of Guam, Anthony Apuron OFM Cap.

The 72 year-old Apuron is a Guam native and member of the Capuchin Franciscans, who served more than 30 years as Archbishop of Agaña, coextensive with Guam’s small island territory, where almost everyone is related to almost everyone else. He was a controversial figure at times.

In particular, the archdiocese was involved in scandals stemming in part from the acquisition of real estate. Apuron wanted the land in order to block building of the gambling resort, and instead construct and outfit a seminary and theological institute to train men discerning vocations from the Neocatechumenal Way, a lay group founded by Spanish artist Francisco “Kiko” Argüello as an itinerary of Christian formation for families in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, of which Apuron has been for decades a strong supporter. He got his way in 2002, though the archdiocese reportedly bid only $2 million for the land (significantly less than the reported bid from Chinese investors, who wanted to build the casino). The Redemptoris Mater seminary opened in 2004.

Complaints about the archbishop – including one from a nephew who said he suffered sexual abuse in 1989 or 1990 at a family gathering – are therefore wrapped up and mixed with several intertwined scandals, with allegations and counter-allegations of shady real estate dealing, influence peddling, abuse of office (both civil and ecclesiastical, against Archbishop Apuron and against other major figures in the Church and island society), and financial misdoings. The crisis on the island ­– in which Archbishop Apuron is only one figure, though a central one – is another protracted one, and the situation still an ugly mess.

A Vatican tribunal investigated and tried Archbishop Apuron in 2017, finding him guilty of two of the six crimes with which he had been charged at the start of the process.

What were those six charges? That is a good question. No one not directly involved in the trial officially knows. The Vatican never announced either the charges or the specific counts on which Apuron had been acquitted. Even Archbishop Michael Byrnes, coadjutor archbishop to Apuron and apostolic administrator of Guam during the trial, did not know what the charges against Apuron were, or what the specific result of the trial was. Byrnes explained to reporters, “I got a phone call saying to go to this site,” and read the statement from the Vatican on the matter.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith removed Apuron from office and forbade him from residing within the archdiocese he formerly led, effectively exiling him from the island of Guam.

Since his conviction, Archbishop Apuron has appeared at papal events on different occasions. Earlier this month, he joined several other bishops on the stage with Pope Francis for an event marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Neocatechumenal Way.

The Holy See press office would not comment on the matter. A source in the Vatican told the Catholic Herald that the Vatican probably had no prior knowledge of the persons invited to participate in the celebration, which took place at Rome’s Tor Vergata field on May 5, in front of 150,000 people from more than 100 countries.

At a weekly general audience earlier this year – after the trial was concluded and the verdict reached, though before the Vatican announced it (that took months, adding another Kafkaesque wrinkle to the story) – Pope Francis gave Archbishop Apuron his blessing and exchanged a few words with him in the Paul VI hall.

Archbishop Apuron maintains his innocence and is appealing his conviction. Judicial processes are what they are, and they take time. Nevertheless, confidence in the administration of justice ­ an indispensable bulwark of credible leadership – cannot be won by means of star chambers and mixed signals.