Vatican upholds sex abuse conviction against Guam archbishop

VATICAN CITY (AP) — 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 on Thursday. Apuron had strongly denied the charges, saying he was a victim of slander and declaring the decision to exile him from Guam "analogous to a death sentence."

His replacement as archbishop of Agana, Michael Byrnes, hailed the verdict as a necessary closure to a "long and painful period for our church."

"The victims, survivors and their families who have suffered greatly can have some measure of solace that justice has been rendered in the church's tribunal process," Byrnes said in a statement.

Despite the Vatican's judgment, Apuron cannot be criminally charged as the offenses took place as long as 30 to 40 years ago, beyond the statute of limitations.

The Apuron case has convulsed Guam, the remote U.S. Pacific territory that is reckoning with a flood of sexual abuse lawsuits against more than 200 people in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic territory.

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, ring, 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. 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. It wasn't clear what, if any restrictions, his order had placed on him.

In a statement, Apuron said he was pleased that he remained a priest and archbishop, albeit without insignia.

"I lose my homeland, my family, my church, my people, even my language, and I remain alone in complete humiliation, old and in failing health," Apuron wrote in a statement released by his attorney, Jacqueline Terlaje and carried by the Pacific Daily News.

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 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.

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