Canon law expert: Apuron can appeal merits of sex abuse case

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The Vatican has removed former Archbishop Anthony Apuron from office. (PNC file photo)

Guam – Former Archbishop Anthony Apuron may have a chance at overturning a guilty verdict against him by a Vatican tribunal.

A canon law expert says the potential reversal could result from a process the Vatican refers to as “second instance,” in which the very merits of the case can be re-examined. This contradicts what most believed: that only the procedure of the canonical trial can be appealed.

Even before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reached a judgment in the canonical trial of former Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron, most experts said the penalty or judgment is not appealable and that only the process can be challenged.

It’s what Archbishop Michael Byrnes said, in a previous press conference, that he understood as well.

But PNC spoke with an expert in canon law, Msgr. Frederick Easton, a judicial vicar with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who was also the former president of the U.S. Canon Law Society. He says Guam has been misinformed.  Apuron can file an appeal on the merits of the case. In fact, he says, it’s happened before.

“That’s a misunderstanding of our church law. They could make a new decision on the same evidence or additional evidence could be gathered on the appeal process,” explained Easton. “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time.”

It’s what they refer to in canon law as a Tribunal of Second Instance.

“So the court on second instance could rule on the whole merit of the case again and reverse their initial findings,” PNC asked.

“Or they could support it,” Easton clarified.

Once a judgment is made and a penalty announced, the guilty has 15 days to file an appeal. Archbishop Apuron announced immediately after the results were published on the Vatican’s website that he made an official challenge to the ruling. But much like the charges filed against Apuron, the appeal documents are not subject to public disclosure. It would be up to the tribunal to make that decision.

Meanwhile, Msgr. Easton questioned the penalty against Apuron, noting that “removal of office” or being banned from Guam is not necessarily the harshest of punishments for an ecclesiastical crime like sexual abuse of minors. However, he did point out that the Vatican has handed down similar punishments for priests of old age.

Apuron, 72, has revealed in recent weeks that he underwent surgery and is in declining health. He was even seen in a wheelchair attending one of Pope Francis’s general audiences in Rome last month.

“But because of his health issue they did not dismiss him from the clerical state because they felt that he’d be out on his own and without any healthcare or anything else,” said Easton of another priest who was also found guilty of sexually abusing minors.

“And that is kind of what the church does, we don’t throw people out,” he noted, adding, “but we don’t condone crimes either.”

By allowing Apuron to remain in clerical state, the disgraced bishop will essentially remain on payroll.

“He’d be eligible to receive honorable sustenance. That’s what we call it, honorable sustenance,” explained Easton. “It’s kind of like, a minimum kind of a thing but honorable so he’s not below the poverty level.”