By Steve Limtiaco | 29 July 2017
The ongoing canonical trial of Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron is significant in that it’s only the second time in centuries a bishop has been put on trial by the church, said Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest and former board member of the Canon Law Society of America.
The last archbishop to undergo a canonical trial — Jozef Wesołowski, who was accused of sexually abusing children in the Dominican Republic — was defrocked in 2014.
“It’s very, very rare, and the reason it’s rare is because the Vatican or the popes have protected the bishops. They consider them to be the most important part of the church, so they protect them, no matter what they’ve done,” Doyle said. “As a result, the bishops have gotten away with both sexually abusing children and promoting the sexual abuse of children by allowing priests, who they knew were abusive persons, to carry on repeat sexual abuse.”
There have been 95 cases filed in federal and local court on Guam, accusing priests and others associated with the church of child sexual abuse, including several cases which allege some children reported the abuse to other church officials who didn’t help them.
If the accusations are true, Guam’s last three bishops and archbishops, including Apuron, sexually abused children or knew about clergy sexual abuse on island and did nothing to stop it.
Apuron was temporarily removed from his position in the local church in June 2016 following abuse allegations lodged against him by three former Agat altar boys and the mother of a deceased altar boy. They have accused Apuron, who was a village priest in the late 1970s, of rape and molestation.
Apuron, in a video message issued shortly after his departure, said he asked the Vatican to conduct a trial. Apuron has denied the abuse allegations, and his attorney has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing the law that retroactively lifted the statute of limitations is unconstitutional.
But Apuron still faces the prospect of losing his job and his status as a member of the clergy.
“The trial follows a procedure in canon law that is significantly different than what we are used to in the common-law system. There’s no jury. There are no open hearings. It is all done in closed court, and the decision is made by three judges, and sometimes five,” Doyle said.
Although the process is secret, witnesses who provided testimony to Vatican officials in recent months said they were told the church in May had concluded the process of gathering testimony, and had appointed five judges to the trial.
Apuron accusers Roy Quintanilla and Roland Sondia have said Rev. Justin M. Wachs, who serves as the Vatican court reporter for the Apuron trial, told them the decision will be made public.
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Doyle said the judges, after reviewing the evidence, and after reading briefs prepared by Apuron’s lawyer and the promoter of justice — the Vatican’s equivalent of a district attorney — “have to get together, physically, in the same room, and they announce to each other what their opinion is – whether it’s guilty or not.”
Doyle said the decision will be made by a majority vote of the judges, and one judge will put the decision in writing.
“If there is sufficient evidence to convict Apuron, then there is an automatic appeal. Who will judge the appeal is another question — that, I don’t know. This is unique,” Doyle said.
“Excommunication is not on the table in this case. The worst possible sentence he could get would be defrocking,” Doyle said, if the judges find there is “moral certitude” that Apuron is guilty.
“The other possible sentence is he would be officially removed as the archbishop of Guam and told to go and lead a life of what they call ‘prayer and penance’ for the rest of his life, where he goes and lives somewhere and just heads to the garden and says his prayers every day. He’ll still be provided for.”
Doyle said, “If he’s defrocked, and he has a pension that he’s invested in, then he has a right to that. But if he’s defrocked, they do not have an obligation to support him for the rest of his life.”
An in-house retirement plan covers all priests of the archdiocese,” said Agana Archdiocese spokesman Tony Diaz.
“That would include Archbishop Apuron, who is still considered part of the archdiocese, notwithstanding his status at the center of a canonical trial,” Diaz said.
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