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Guam Catholic Church sees a “perfect storm” of controversy

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Archbishop Anthony Apuron stands in front of the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in Hagatna, Guam. The Catholic Church on Guam has been devastated by allegations that its longtime archbishop sexually abused altar boys.

HAGATNA, Guam >> The Catholic Church on the Pacific island of Guam has been devastated by allegations that its longtime archbishop sexually abused altar boys. But even before the scandal broke, Guam’s church was divided over another issue — the presence of a controversial European lay movement that became so toxic that a community of nuns fled to the mainland U.S. in despair.

The battle on the tiny tropical U.S. territory pits the Neocatechumenal Way lay group against critics on a majority Catholic island that was colonized by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century. The Way was founded in the 1960s in Madrid and is best known for sending families out on missions to evangelize in places where Catholics are a either a minority or have fallen away from the church.

For years, locals on Guam have complained that the Way represented a new missionary movement trying to introduce an unusual version of Catholicism to their church, which is the most influential institution on the island. The Way’s practices include celebrating Mass on Saturday night in special communities of 30-40 people seated around a table, rather than facing an altar in a church open to all.

Guam’s critics aren’t alone. Bishops in Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere have sought to limit the Way’s activity in their territories, complaining of sectarian and culturally insensitive practices.

But the Way had a strong supporter in Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron, who encouraged the group’s growth on the island and even turned his new seminary over to the Way to run.

That coddling came to an abrupt halt when Pope Francis suspended Apuron last June after a handful of men came forward to accuse him of having sexually abused them decades ago when he was a Guam parish priest. Apuron has denied the accusations and can’t be criminally charged because too much time has passed. The Way hasn’t been implicated.

Francis named an interim archbishop, Michael Byrnes, to lead the archdiocese until Apuron’s fate within the church is decided by a Vatican court.

Responding to the criticism, Byrnes on March 15 placed restrictions on the Way, mandating a yearlong “pause” in the creation of new prayer communities on Guam, ordering that its members obey Vatican rules in celebrating Mass and launching a review into the quality of their training as Catholic teachers.

“The sooner we have unity and universal adherence as an archdiocese to the norms established by the church … the sooner we shall be on the path to reconciling with one another,” Byrnes said.

It was the latest case of a bishop cracking down on the Way, which has won praise in Vatican circles for its missionary zeal, but criticism in the field for sometimes being a divisive presence.

In Guam, where 80 percent of its 159,000 residents are Catholic, the Way has attracted about 800 followers. Globally, it is said to have upward of 1 million.

What makes the group controversial is its liturgy, in which the faithful often receive Communion sitting down. The laity also offer personal “resonances” about Scriptural readings that critics say can detract from the priest’s homily.

Despite its detractors, the Way enjoyed the blessing of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican approved its statutes and some of its peculiar liturgy in 2008, but did order the Way to more closely adhere to universal liturgical norms.

Pope Francis has praised the Way’s missionary spirit, but he has insisted they pursue “humble and obedient unity” with local churches, said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of historical theology.

Faggioli said the situation in Guam represented “a perfect storm” of problems that underscores just how divisive movements like the Neocatechumenals can be. The Guam church is coping with a sex scandal, financial problems and grassroots criticism of the Way.

“Francis hasn’t singled out one movement as a bad example, but he has always told them you have to create unity, you cannot create a sub-church or a parallel church,” Faggioli said.

In Guam, which is closer to the Philippines than Hawaii, more tradition-minded faithful rebelled at Apuron’s embrace of the Way, which included naming Way priests to parishes where beloved pastors had served for years.

Many people simply stopped contributing. The Agana Cathedral-Basilica was placed in receivership last week, drowning under $2 million in debt thanks in part to a drop-off in donations.

Way supporters point to its strong spirituality and enthusiasm in reawakening the faith in Catholics.

“We are a small reality on this island willing to reach out for the poor, for those who are out of the church,” said Dr. David Atienza, the lead catechist for the Way in Guam. He said the group would comply with Byrnes’ letter.

The Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck, a Jesuit professor of pastoral theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said that despite some detractors, the Way is a new church reality.

“The positive thing to say is that it represents one among many movements in the church that is offering a way to be Catholic and a way to be Christian that is more demanding, that is deeper, that is more engaged, than what you find in many everyday Catholics,” he said.

Opponents of the Way formed a group — the “Concerned Catholics of Guam” — and last year took out full-page newspaper ads urging victims of priestly sexual abuse to come forward. The campaign resulted in Apuron’s accusers going public and a law lifting the statute of limitations on abuse claims. For more than 35 Sundays, protesters have picketed outside the cathedral, demanding that Apuron be defrocked.

“Concerned Catholics of Guam” was also decisive in pushing for an investigation into the archdiocesan seminary, which Apuron opened in 1999 and moved to an 18-acre property thanks to a $2 million anonymous donation.

A Vatican-backed inquiry into the seminary found that the property’s control had effectively been transferred to the Way’s administrators without Vatican approval. Byrnes transferred ownership back to the archdiocese. The review also found deficiencies in the curriculum.

The seminary controversy came to a head when the Carmelite order of religious sisters revealed it had provided the $2 million donation, but said the money had been intended for an archdiocesan seminary to train diocesan priests, not a Neocatechumenal Way seminary to train missionaries.

In a remarkable press conference in November, Carmelite Mother Superior Dawn Marie came out of her cloister and announced that her small community of nuns had left the island after a 50-year presence because of the “toxic environment” created by the controversy.

The Vatican’s administrator running the archdiocese, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, apologized for how the donor’s intent had been “twisted by some people” and thanked the sisters for their long service.

Apuron, who remains off the island as his canonical trial continues, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. In November, he welcomed Byrnes’ appointment, saying: “During this time of difficulty for Guam, in which so many hurtful things have been said, I have remained on retreat while working with the authorities in the Vatican to establish my innocence.”

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