A Church in Crisis

November 29, 2016 Mar-Vic Cagurangan

 

Activism among the local faithful builds to a crescendo. Placard-bearing protesters alleging church anomalies have now become familiar spectacle in this strongly Catholic community, where challenging the integrity of the ecclesiastical institution was once frowned upon. But when the men of cloth are questioned, the faith of many is stirred.

On June 6, the Vatican sent Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai to Guam as interim administrator of the Archdiocese of Agana. His task was “to understand the current difficulties” besetting the church mission on Guam. “The primary concern of the administrator is to restore unity, harmony, and stability,” the Archdiocese said when it announced Hon’s arrival.

There is no simple narrative to sum up what has been troubling the local church.

The main embattled figure is no less than Archbishop Anthony Apuron, who has been relieved of his duties as head of the Archdiocese amid escalating calls for his defrocking. He is in hot water for allegedly giving away a multi-million dollar church asset to the Neocatechumenal Way movement, and is now also facing mounting allegations of sex abuse lodged by former altar boys.

At the center of the turmoil is the Redemptoris Mater Seminary property in Yona, which is trapped in an incredible labyrinth of real estate and organizational legalese. In 2011, Apuron turned over the property to RMS by virtue of a deed restriction that Hon said “created great ambiguities” and was issued “without due process in conformity with the Church law.”

 

 

Hon said the Holy See had seen the problem created by the property transfer, and thus instructed Apuron to rescind the deed more than a year ago. “Clearly, this instruction has not been carried out accordingly,” the Vatican representative said, noting that Apuron’s action “has been a source of grave dispute and division in our Church.” On August 18, the apostolic official asked the RMS to return the property to the Archdiocese of Agana.

“How can you return the property to yourself?” Dr. Ricardo Eusebio, a member of the recently abolished RMS Board of Directors, asked. “You already own it.” He said there is a lot of misconception about the seminary ownership and that people “should quit asking who really owns RMS.”  But this tug-of-war is more complicated than a question of property ownership; it entails an intricate nexus of facts, speculation, and conspiracy theories. The seminary itself, as a nonprofit entity, has mutated into a confusing identity with an unfamiliar purpose since Apuron established it on December 8, 1999. Critics have raised a host of concerns: legal obscurities, suspicious decisions, power conflicts, and a clash of doctrines. If they are right, what may look like isolated events are actually intertwined into the mesh of a crisis that has engulfed the Archdiocese.

Many see the catalyst as the 2014 removal of Monsignor James Benavente as rector of the Cathedral after being accused of financial mismanagement. But some suspect this was a smokescreen. According to Junglewatch, a blog by Apuron critic Tim Rohr, who has been closely monitoring the developments, “It appears that Apuron needs a scapegoat. In 2012, after Apuron tried to give away the old Accion hotel property to the Neocatechumenal Way and was blocked by the finance council of which Msgr. James was a member, Apuron received a note from Rome directing an audit on the Archdiocese.”

 

 

Benavente has since been cleared of allegations of financial mismanagement, and has been named pastor of St. Anthony, St. Victor's Church in Tamuning.

 

RMS HISTORY

The former Accion Hotel is located on an 18.7-acre piece of land in Yona, and was purchased by the Archdiocese of Agana on November 15, 2002 for $1.9 million for the Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary Redemptoris Mater. The first group of seminarians was housed with local families, and then eventually they relocated to the former Father Duenas Minor Seminary in Mangilao, which was later destroyed by typhoon Pongsona in 2002. The Archdiocese was able to quickly pay off the bank loan for the property through a $2 million anonymous donation it received in 2003. (NOTE: this identity of this anonymous benefactor was recently revealed)

 

 

On Nov. 22, 2011, Apuron signed a deed restriction turning over the Yona property “in perpetual use” of the RMS and the Blessed Diego Luis Theological Institute, which provides the course of study and professors for the seminarians. The transaction only became public when it was questioned four years later by the newly formed Concerned Catholics of Guam (CCOG).

Among the organization’s goals was to help the Archdiocese achieve financial transparency following the removal of Monsignor Benavente, and to raise funds for young men studying for the priesthood to send them to seminaries off-island because the group argued that RMS was no longer ordaining regular diocese priests. “They were told that the only type of priests they would be ordaining are those in the practice and life of Neocatechumenal Way,” said David Sablan, president of CCOG. “We got involved when we incorporated ourselves in December 2014, and we found out that in January 2015, the seminary in Yona was covertly transferred to Redemptoris Mater Seminary, which is a completely different corporation of the Archdiocese of Agana.”

In media interviews, Reverend Pius Sammut, RMS rector, said the Archdiocese of Agana is the sole owner of the Yona property, and that only Apuron may lift the deed restriction. This claim, however, was contradicted by a legal opinion by Attorney Jacques G. Bronze, who opined that “based on Guam statutes governing interpretation of deeds and contracts, the property interest conveyed is an absolute conveyance of the entire fee simple title of the subject properties to RMHF, subject to a restraint in use.”

The RMS invoked its own legal opinion from a Denver law firm, stating that the Yona property is owned by the Archdiocese. “Even the Department of Land Management said that the Archdiocese owns the seminary,” Eusebio said. “The Archbishop, as the corporate sole, is the person that runs the seminary.”

But while the property ownership may be easier to determine, the nuance of the conflict lies on who gets to use the property—permanently. By virtue of the deed of restriction, RMS claims a permanent stake in it. “The deed says that the building and the property will always be used by the seminary,” Eusebio said. “But they don’t like that deed of restriction because that answers what the benefactor wants to do—the benefactor gave the money for the seminary.”

Both sides reference the same documents, but how each interprets what they read is where the conflict emerges. There’s a question of intention and the manner by which the property was designated.

There’s enough legal confusion as to how Apuron managed to transfer the property undetected. “The clandestine nature of how the deed restriction was filed has driven the belief among the faithful that the absolute conveyance of the property was intentional,” read a portion of a report released on September 18 by the Visitation ad hoc committee, led by Fr. Jeffrey San Nicolas. “It made clear that the Archbishop of Agana, Corporation Sole’ on the one hand, is a separate legal entity from the…nonprofit Redemptoris Mater House of Formation and Redemptoris Mater Seminary, on the other hand, the statutes of the RMS are specifically designed to form presbyters for the “New Evangelization,” as understood by the Neocatechumenal Way. As a result the seminarians’ formation does not prioritize the importance of parish ministry, parish management, and the general familiarity of the seminarians with parish life.”

The committee concluded that while the RMHF/RMS is strictly Neocatechumenal in its formation program, it was canonically established as “Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary Redemptoris Mater” and legally operates under the factious name “Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary.” While the seminary is labeled to emphasize its supposed ties with the Archdiocese of Agana, the committee noted, its affiliation to the Catholic Church is not substantiated in its program. “While this may be interpreted as a lack of transparency, at best, the seminary’s harshest critics call it dishonest,” the committee said.

The committee’s inquiry found that at the governance level of decision-making, the seminary is controlled by the Board of Guarantors, who have veto or approval power for the most important affairs of the corporation. “While the Board is presided over by the Archbishop, he holds only one of potentially seven votes on the Board,” the report said. “Because the Archbishop lacks clear control over the administration and governance of the seminary, its archdiocesan affiliation is questionable. The archdiocesan nature of the seminary is further blurred because the other members of the Board of Guarantors, besides the Archbishop of Agana, do not even reside on Guam and are generally unknown to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Agana,” the report said.

 

THE MOVEMENT

The controversy involves not just the seminary, but also the institution itself. Outside of the property furor, many traditional Catholics on Guam view the Neocatechumenal Way as a mystery, if not a curiosity. Also known as The Way or NCW, it is a charism within the Catholic Church, formed in Madrid by Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernandez in 1964. According to the movement’s historical accounts, Argüello, a painter, and Hernandez, a graduate in Chemistry and Theology, met in the shantytown of Palomeras Altas, on the outskirts of Madrid, where they developed a program for evangelizing the slum’s residents, many of them gypsies, prostitutes, drunkards, and robbers who had no relationship with the Church. On May 8, 1974, Pope Paul VI approved the Neocatechumenal Way and in 1987 Pope John Paul II opened the first Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Rome to prepare priests for the New Evangelization. In 1990, the NCW was recognized by John Paul II as “an itinerary of Catholic formation valid for our society and our time,” and an instrument for the New Evangelization. Within the parish, the Neocatechumenate is lived in small group communities, each consisting of 50 people.

 

What started as a movement in the slums of Madrid has grown into a worldwide movement

 

Its liturgical rituals differ from the practices at traditional Catholic mass. It views Jesus Christ as a regular human who sinned, rather than the Son of God. Thus the traditional Catholics view this fairly young organization with suspicion; some refer to it as a cult. “The first NCW to come to Guam was Pius; he found that Apuron was a very willing archbishop—willing to do just about everything, and convinced him to join the second community in Hagåtña.” Sablan said.

There are an estimated 700 NCW members on Guam. “At the Archdiocese, he is the head of the Church; at the NCW community, he is just Brother Tony, who is under the chief catechist. Pius is the chief catechist, which means he is the big boss of that community. One of the things that they tell members is that you must be obedient to the community. In my opinion, they just took advantage of him,” Sablan said.   

Sablan speculated that the NCW has manipulated the Archbishop into transferring the Yona property. “When Father Pius was interviewed on the radio, he admitted that the reason for the property transfer was because they wanted to protect it (from litigation) in case there is any lawsuit against Apuron,” he said.

Sablan noted that the property transfer was made a couple of years prior to public accusations of sex abuse made by former altar boys against Apuron. “They must have known of the allegations of abuses all these years and were aware of potential lawsuits. So, to protect the property, they had it separated from the Archdiocese,” he said.

 

 

 

LAWSUIT

As Archbishop Hon has pointed out, the 2011 deed restriction on RMS has created “great ambiguities” that muddle the property ownership. The RMS has not responded to Hon’s earlier demand for the property’s return. “The fastest way to make this happen,” said Sablan, “is for Archbishop Hon to file a request with the Department of Land Management to convey the property back to the Archdiocese.” Taking the matter to court is another option. Sablan said the CCOG may take the court route, but first it has to establish its legal standing to justify its petition.

While trying to secure the property back from the RMS, the Archdiocese finds itself in yet another precarious situation. The sex abuse allegations against Apuron, which at first glance may seem like a peripheral issue, is another factor that will require the Archdiocese to shield the RMS.

Gov. Eddie Calvo has signed into law a bill that lifts the statute of limitations for sex-abuse cases. The Archdiocese is facing mounting accusations of sex abuse against Apuron for allegedly molesting altar boys when he was a priest at the Mount Carmel Parish in Agat in the 1970s. At least four former altar boys, the mother of a deceased altar boy, and a third-party witness have come out with disturbing claims against Apuron. The enactment of the sex abuse law may open the floodgates for lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Agana.

 

 

“In permitting lawsuits to be revived from decades ago, the Archdiocese will be exposed to unlimited financial liability,” Hon said in a message read at a September 18 mass. He warned that the bankruptcy will result in forced sale of church property that currently houses Catholic schools and social services, hence a “devastating effect on education and charitable work.”

 

FINANCIAL BURDEN

Being an independent, non-profit entity, the RMS manages its financial accounts separately from the Archdiocese of Agana. Just the same, it has been receiving a regular subsidy from the Archdiocese since its establishment in 1999.  However, it is not clear how much exactly the RMS gets from the Archdiocese due to a discrepancy in financial records. While the Archdiocese of Agana reported giving a subsidy of $92,450 to the RMS in fiscal 2016, the seminary reported receiving only $73,800.

For the Catholic faithful, the seminary’s operations and its very presence on Guam raise a host of questions, said Andrew Camacho, vice-president of the CCOG. “What do we get for our investment? Poorly formed priests? Priests working in other countries?” He also dismissed the RMS as a “sham.”

Over the last few years, RMS has ordained 17 priests in the practice of NCW. “Do they serve the Catholic faithful in Guam?” Camacho asked. “Seven priests serve in local parishes. Two are at RMS. Eight are not in Guam. Some are serving in other countries. Why form priests for Guam if they don’t stay on Guam?”

The visitation committee agrees with CCOG’s suggestion that the RMS be shut down unless it can justify its value to the Archdiocese by revamping its program and structure to reflect this diocesan element and include the formation of diocesan priests.

But NCW supporter Eusebio said RMS’s credentials speak for its legitimacy. He said the seminary is accredited by the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. “When the priests graduate from the seminary they get a bachelor’s degree and are accepted into graduate school. If there is a problem or if they have a questionable education degree, what university will accept them into graduate school?”

 

NOT THE BOOGEYMAN

“How do I respond to the allegations against the Neocatechumenal Way?” Eusebio said. “It is frustrating to repeatedly say these are false allegations. As I said, we are not the boogeyman. It has been created because of fear and ignorance.”

On its 10th anniversary on Guam in 2008, the RMS received a legislative resolution, commending the institution for its evangelical work on Guam. “So it was a good thing. That was six years ago. All of a sudden, RMS is bad,” Eusebio remarked. “More seminarians have been ordained. The composition of the board is still pretty much the same except for a few people. I don’t understand why all of a sudden there is a controversy.  How can it go from being something fantastic that happened to Guam to now being a bad thing?”

 

Dr. Ricardo Eusebio has been Archbishop Apuron's most vocal supporter

Eusebio has been walking “The Way” for 20 years. “Nobody ever forced me to come join. I joined because it helped me become a better Catholic. Before that, I just called myself a Catholic, but half the time I didn’t really understand what the priest was saying.“I thought it was a way to find out more about my religion. My wife and I went and somehow for the first time I heard something that made me feel good,” he explained.

While the “community” may have a different way of celebrating Masses, Eusebio said walking The Way got him to “finally become closer to [the] Church. Why would anyone want to take that away?” he said.

“NCW has been misrepresented,” Eusebio said, “for something that you don’t like, or something you feel is a threat. It’s easier to make it the boogeyman. The more you make the boogeyman bigger, the more you make it scarier by giving it certain characteristics that will scare or repulse you. They say NCW will brainwash you and make you do things you don’t like. What is the boogeyman? It doesn’t exist.”  


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